Published by the Blavatsky Study Center / Blavatsky Archives

Tracing the Source of Tibetan Phrases
Found in Mahatma Letters #54 and #92


Antonios Goyios

April 2009

“kam mi ts’har”

In Mahatma Letter #54, one of the Mahatma Letters published under the joint title of “The Mahatma Letters to A.P.Sinnett”, edited by A.T.Barker, we read the following narrative described by A.P.Sinnett’s correspondent, the Mahatma K. H. :

“I cannot close without telling you of an incident which, however ludicrous, has led to something that makes me thank my stars for it, and will please you also. Your letter, enclosing that of C.C.M. was received by me on the morning following the date you had handed it over to the "little man." I was then in the neighbourhood of Pari-Jong, at the gun-pa of a friend, and was very busy with important affairs. When I received intimation of its arrival, I was just crossing the large inner courtyard of the monastery; bent upon listening to the voice of Lama Ton-dhub Gyatcho, I had no time to read the contents. So, after mechanically opening the thick packet, I merely glanced at it, and put it, as I thought, into the travelling bag I wear across the shoulder. In reality though, it had dropped on the ground; and since I had broken the envelope and emptied it of its contents, the latter were scattered in their fall. There was no one near me at the time, and my attention being wholly absorbed with the conversation, I had already reached the staircase leading to the library door, when I heard the voice of a young gyloong calling out from a window, and expostulating with someone at a distance. Turning round I understood the situation at a glance; otherwise your letter would have never been read by me for I saw a venerable old goat in the act of making a morning meal of it. The creature had already devoured part of C.C.M.'s letter, and was thoughtfully preparing to have a bite at yours […]. To rescue what remained of it took me but one short instant, […] but there remained mighty little of it! The envelope with your crest on had nearly disappeared, the contents of the letters made illegible -- in short I was perplexed at the sight of the disaster. Now you know why I felt embarrassed: I had no right to restore it, the letters coming from the "Eclectic" and connected directly with the hapless "Pelings" on all sides. What could I do to restore the missing parts! I had already resolved to humbly crave permission from the Chohan to be allowed an exceptional privilege in this dire necessity, when I saw his holy face before me, with his eye twinkling in quite an unusual manner, and heard his voice: "Why break the rule? I will do it myself." These simple words Kam mi ts'har -- "I'll do it," contain a world of hope for me. He has restored the missing parts and done it quite neatly too, as you see, and even transformed a crumpled broken envelope, very much damaged, into a new one -- crest and all. Now I know what great power had to be used for such a restoration, and this leads me to hope for a relaxation of severity one of these days.”

In the above extract, it is clearly stated that the Chohan’s words were “kam mi ts’har”, and that their English equivalent is “I’ll do it”. The other non-English words of the extract, as well as the situation described, and also the extant Mahatmas’ Letters content as a whole, would definitely denote that the Theosophical Mahatmas, and the teachers of H.P. Blavatsky in particular, were intimately connected with the locality of Tibet, and also with the Tibetan language. In fact, texts like the Mahatmas’ “Cosmological Notes”, and even The Secret Doctrine, abound with Tibetan terms which are therein presented as incomplete instances of the original nomenclature used by the exponents of the doctrine described in Theosophical literature. Many of these terms have been, to date, successfully identified with their intended Tibetan equivalents, while a number of terms still remain unidentified, or do not lend themselves unquestionably to a single solution.

The main inhibition encountered in the successful identification of terms used in H.P. Blavatsky’s and the Mahatmas’ writings lies in the fact that when the authors of those works referred to Tibetan words, they usually did so in accordance with their phonetic characteristics. Tibetan, however, is a language which has plenty of words with similar or even identical pronunciation, and whose distinction and main way of telling their difference lies in the way they are written, rather than spoken, as they can radically differ in terms of spelling. This applies extensively even in cases where a word has only one syllable, since Tibetan is a language characterized by an extensive amount of non-pronounced (or barely pronounced) letters. In consequence, transliterating a word phonetically, and doing so in the latin alphabet, cannot but lead to a certain amount of confusion, since it fails to capture both the exact Tibetan pronunciation, as well as the Tibetan spelling, and as a result the citation can often potentially refer to a large collection of possible matches, with widely varying meanings. To resolve this complication, and to do so while also using the latin alphabet to write Tibetan, European scholars studying the Tibetan language devised various transliteration systems during the course of time, and eventually mostly settled in the use of the so-called “Wylie” system of transliteration. Still, during the time that the Theosophical Society was founded and the works in question were written, no such common transliteration scheme was ever yet agreed upon, as the study of Tibetan was in it’s very early stages. Transliterations varied according to the author, and most followed the phonetic rather than the written form of a word. As a result of all these factors, the works of H.P. Blavatsky and the Mahatmas at certain times can pose significant difficulties to pinpointing an accurate match among the various potential words that a transliterated term could refer to.

In this instance, “kam mi ts’har” , as found in the above extract, has posed serious difficulties. Unlike other difficult cases however, where the main question lies in the fact that the ambiguous term could refer to more than one thing, this particular phrase has eluded identification because of it’s apparent inability to be applied to Tibetan so as to mean “I’ll do it”, or something to that effect. This is an issue that has often troubled me, as “kam mi ts’har” is a phrase equally non-applicable to Hindi (a language whose words are particularly common in the Mahatma Letters), as well as Sanskrit. The closest, although certainly incorrect approximation I had ever tentatively come up with was the Hindi phrase “hindi.gif   (“”) , which can be roughly translated as “I’ll do the work”, or even “I’ll do it”.

Recently, “kam mi ts’har” got successfully identified in a 19th century Tibetan language book entitled “A Manual of Tibetan”, written by T.H. Lewin, published in 1879 in Calcutta. The book contains numerous exercises for learning colloquial Tibetan, in the form of exemplary sentences and short dialogs, accompanied by simple vocabulary lists. All the sentences are found in three versions: Tibetan script, Lewin’s phonetic transliteration of the Tibetan, and also English translation. In page 43 of the book, exercise 42, example 4, we are met with the following:




A full image of the page in question can be seen here. As it can be seen from the above picture, “kam mi ts’har”, minus an accent mark over "a" in ‘kam’, can be found in Lewin’s transliteration, side by side with the English phrase “I can complete the work”. However, despite it’s perhaps misleading appearance, “kam mi ts’har” and “I can complete the work” are not meant to be read as one translating the other, but simply happen to be printed side by side due to each of the three versions of the sentence (English translation, phonetic transliteration, and Tibetan script) variously wrapping as they follow the borders of their respective vertical columns in the page.  The Tibetan phrase, in truth, has a very different syntax from English, and “kam mi ts’har” corresponds to a completely different part of the English translation than what it may erroneously lend itself to due to the misleading visual impression brought about by their respective positioning. This can be clearly seen by the following word-for-word translation of the Tibetan sentence (I am keeping the phonetic transliteration employed by Lewin for convenient reference):


Thus, a literal translation of the sentence as a whole would be “I do not know whether I can do this work or cannot”.


As the above detailed translation and vocabulary make evident, “kam mi ts’har” is in truth a sentence fragment which could be translated as “or not do/complete”. Consequently, it not only does not denote the sense of “I will do it”, but is actually a negative construction, denoting even in it’s fragmentary state a possibility of non-completion, rather than an affirmation, as the originally quoted content of Mahatma Letter #54 apparently leads the reader to assume.

It can be assumed at this point that whatever agent was responsible for the production of this letter’s content, was certainly not exercising knowledge of the Tibetan language in this instance. It is also evident that Lewin’s manual has played some part in the process of writing of the Mahatma’s letter.

The apparent discrepancy indicated by the above observations, grows even more prominent once we consider the following: this sentence is part of Lewin’s exercise #42, an exercise which is actually almost exclusively dedicated to practicing the use of the negative particle “mi”. As can be seen in the image of the full page, from the collection of 16 sentence examples found in that page of the book, 11 of them make use of the negative “mi”, in a very marked fashion, a sentence often being constituted by a single subject, object and verb, and with the verb prominently used in the negative by the use of “mi”, in an attempt to clearly denote it’s function. What’s more, there is a vocabulary in the left side of the page, where potentially unknown words found in the sentences are given with their English translation.

In consequence of the above, it becomes apparent that even the briefest and most unfocused glance over the page would be essentially problematic for justifying the erroneous attribution of “kam mi ts’har” ‘s meaning as “I can complete the work” or “I will do it”. This not only precludes a successful application of one's knowledge of Tibetan in the production of the letter, but very nearly (if not actually) points to a complete lack of knowledge of the language, on account of the evident misuse of the material provided in "Manual of Tibetan". Furthermore, it could be argued that even a person completely ignorant of Tibetan and seeing Lewin’s book for the first time could, through briefly going through the contents of the page in question and by inductively comparing them, surmise the definite negative meaning of “mi” as part of the Tibetan sentence. And yet, this instance, in the midst of a paragraph full of Tibetan words, very conspicuously remains as a definite case of seemingly mechanical copying, denoting even signs of an apparent lack of common sense, apart from a lack of knowledge of Tibetan.

Inspection of the content of Lewin’s “Manual of Tibetan” brings forth other signs which strengthen the above mentioned observations, and show a connection between it and the compilation of another Mahatma Letter, namely Mahatma Letter #92.


The Tibetan fragment on the envelope of Mahatma Letter #92

The Mahatma Letter #92, from the collection of letters found published in “The Mahatma Letters to A.P.Sinnett”, bares the date November 23, 1882. On the envelope of the letter, is found a quotation of a Tibetan passage in the handwriting of Mahatma K.H.   . The passage is given in Tibetan script, latin alphabet phonetic transliteration, and English translation. A black-and-white facsimile of the envelope can be found in the Facsimile edition of “The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett”, and is reproduced below:


The translation, as found in the bottom part of the image, reads “The only refuge for him who aspires to true perfection is Buddha alone“.


Not much has been written regarding this envelope’s quoted passage. David and Nancy Reigle, in their book “Blavatsky’s Secret Books”, mentioned this instance, and successfully identified the passage (with minor corrections), with the help of a Tibetan Rinpoche, as a line from the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, chapter 1, verse 21 [1]. The Ratna-gotra-vibhaga is a Buddhist scriptural text associated with the Tathagatagarbha doctrine, described as originally written in Sanskrit, and later on translated in both Tibetan and Chinese. It is accounted for in Tibetan tradition as one of the “Five Books of Maitreya”. The passage in question, along with it’s preferred readings in accordance with Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, can be seen below:



As was previously briefly mentioned however, the close inspection of the contents of Lewin’s “Manual of Tibetan” provides further, and also very important material for our better apprehension of the passage found in letter #92. By turning to page 134, exercise 97, example 11, we are met with the following:




We thus find an exact match for the English translation found in letter #92 in the last part of example 11, while we also find the phonetic transliteration of the Mahatma Letter sharing a nearly identical pattern with that found in Lewin’s manual [2]. In consequence of the observations regarding Mahatma Letter #54 and it’s connection with “Manual of Tibetan”, there is hardly any doubt at this point that the book in question must have played a part in the compilation of letter #92. It is also of importance that George E. Linton and Virginia Hanson, in their “Readers Guide to the Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett” (published in 1972) , give to Mahatma Letter #54, which is apparently undated, an estimated receipt date of October 1882 (based on independent grounds from those treated in this article). It thus appears that there is also a chronological affinity between letters #54 and #92 (whose date is found written on the original as November 23, 1882).

The variances found between the phonetic transliterations present some interest, and they can be seen by comparing the letter#92 facsimile with the above image. However, it is of great importance to examine the Tibetan writing, and the connection between the apparently hand-written Tibetan found on the Mahatma Letter’s envelope with the printed Tibetan of “Manual of Tibetan”. Close comparison shows intimate connections, and in a significant number of well-defined cases it appears that the agent responsible for the letter #92’s envelope was reproducing the characters found in Lewin’s manual visually rather than actually writing while exercising one’s own knowledge of the Tibetan language. This can be surmised because of the fact that the Tibetan writing of the passage in “Manual of Tibetan” has a number of evident instances of defectively printed or misprinted characters. These characters, whose defective appearance is the visual product of erroneous printing procedures, are quite unlike the mistakes and/or peculiarities which can characterize and tend to appear in handwritten documents. Due to this, one would not expect such occurrences in a manuscript like the Mahatma letter #92 envelope. Even if something of the sort were to be traced in the ML#92 envelope, one would still less expect such occurrences to be found in conjunction with the same peculiarities being also present in the printed manual of Lewin. Despite this fact, close inspection of the Tibetan script in the two instances does show what could be described as a marked tendency to reproduce, in handwriting, those very same peculiarities, thus leading to the conclusion that the writing was visually interpreted, like the copying of a drawn image, rather than as a written sentence.

A number of very clear examples of this type of correlations could be brought forth in this instance. In fact, since we are dealing with only a single sentence of writing in this comparison, the number of apparently faithful visual reproductions (especially of what were, in fact, misprinted characters in the first place) is, in my opinion, quite sufficient to warrant no question as to whether this is actually the case or not. The observations that have been made earlier in this article also strengthen this conclusion to a considerable extent.

In this instance, I will only bring up one indicative case of the type of similarities I have mentioned, so as to let the reader better appreciate the nature of what I am referring to. By consulting the image below, we can see a chosen character from the passage, reproduced in three different versions: digital Tibetan font (top), Lewin’s “Manual of Tibetan” version (middle), and the ML#92 envelope’s version (bottom). The digital Tibetan font version is provided for purposes of better appreciating what the character’s intended shape generally looks like. In Lewin’s manual, the character was badly misprinted, making it illegible. In the ML#92 envelope version, as shown in the bottom portion of the image, we find a very close approximation of the “Manual of Tibetan” misprint, although we certainly cannot say that the character in question has any connection with the shape of the intended character for that portion of the text. This is indicative that the passage was written visually, reproducing “Manual of Tibetan” ‘s depicted script, without involving the knowledge of what it represents. One might argue at this point that perhaps the Mahatma Letter and the "Manual of Tibetan" display different characters at this point, and that a different word was intended on the ML#92 envelope, thus making comparison of the two not applicable for us. However, in conjunction with the phonetic transliteration from the ML#92 envelope (which also agrees with “Manual of Tibetan”), and finally the given English translation, which is identical in both cases, it becomes evident what the intended character is in all these instances, and that in fact we are dealing with the same quoted passage.



It is to be expected that any reader with some familiarity with the written Tibetan language will be in a better position to accurately judge this and the other similar instances, although I think that the matter is clear enough to be demonstrable in the above case even without any prior familiarity with the subject. For anyone wishing to engage in further comparison, an image found here can be consulted for such purposes, again constituting three versions of the passage (now in full), namely digital font, Lewin's "Manual of Tibetan", and ML#92's envelope extract.



In conclusion, it becomes evident from the above that the compilation of both of these letters (#54 and #92) involved the copying of Tibetan terms, or even whole passages, from T.H. Lewin’s “Manual of Tibetan”. What’s more, in both cases, we see clear traces of copying without a knowledge of Tibetan being employed, this leading in very significant errors to occur, which would be considered highly unlikely -- if not impossible -- to occur, in the case of a Tibetan knower having been involved in authoring them.

In my opinion, the above observations constitute an important find which ought to receive serious consideration. They are also related with other similar observations that have been made in connection with H.P. Blavatsky's and the Mahatmas’ writings, often liable to incite charges of plagiarism or dishonest conduct [3] . Also, this particular find is of special interest in the sense that it deals with fields of knowledge that would generally be expected to be known to the author of the letters in question.

Furthermore, it eventually becomes (even more) apparent that what all these 'suspect' cases of parallel passages point to, should be understood by their collective appreciation, rather than as isolated cases. They evidently indicate a process at work in the production of the literature which has been frequently employed, whether intentionally or not [4] . There will certainly be those who consider such instances very clear indications of fraudulent/dishonest activity at work. It should be noted however, that such conclusions are usually, if not essentially, the products of shallow and non-critical research on the part of those who proclaim them, as careful scrutiny of the history, written accounts, people, and known facts concerning the early years of the Theosophical Society, and the life of H.P. Blavatsky, present a much more complex and quite different case than the -- apparently automatic for some -- assumption of fraud being present. 

What is certainly apparently true is that the mode of compilation of much of the literature bearing the signatures of H.P. Blavatsky and her Teachers has been much different, and more complex, than what may be assumed by one simply reading through it. Critical and comparative study makes this mode more appreciable to us, and allows a more accurate representation of the work, and the 'layers' composing it, to come to the surface. Just what this mode of compilation entails, would be a subject of much speculation at this point, and is purposely not entered into here. However it is evidently one of significant importance, and directly related with the production of a large part of the literature available to us.  Clearly, more research needs to take place in this direction.






[1] See also “The Book of Dzyan Research Reports”.


 [2] It should perhaps be noted at this point that the part of example 11 preceding the quotation found on Mahatma letter #92, although apparently in mutual context with it’s latter part (which seems like a natural continuation), is not to be found in the vicinity of Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, chapter 1, verse 21 (or 20). Whether it is to be found in another part of the same work remains to be known, although it appears that example 11 as found in “Manual of Tibetan” is a compilation from more than one particular source.

 Until now, it has been customary and part of the training of Tibetan monks and lamas to memorize the texts they study. This memorization process (which is not at all a feature solely characterizing Tibetan Buddhists), despite being considered part of their study and training, later on allows them to quote extensively from memory. Sometimes they may even compile whole works of their own, in which various passages from scriptural sources are quoted in this fashion, without necessarily a consultation of a written manuscript taking place. It has been the case that such passages, quoted from memory, may sometimes be quoted in a partially incorrect fashion. This may either occur in the form of somewhat different syntax/grammar from the original version, or in the form of erroneously linking a passage quoted from memory to a different part of a text (or sometimes even a different text altogether) than the one it belongs to. 

 Thus, keeping in mind that T.H. Lewin compiled his "Manual of Tibetan" with the help of "Yapa Ugyen Gyatsho, a learned lama of the monastery of Pemiongchi" (as the book's title page informs us), it is quite probable that the variant readings found in the Tibetan version of the latter part of example 11 (p.134), which has been identified with Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, chapter 1, verse 21, are due to it being quoted in such a fashion by the learned lama assisting T.H. Lewin. Similarly, the rest of example 11, perhaps found it's way in there by a similar process of quoting from memory.


[3] See, for instance, "The Kiddle Incident", "Parallel Columns: What Does This Mean?", and other similar cases. Also see "Controversies Surrounding Madame Blavatsky's Work & the Teachings of Theosophy".


[4] In fact, the following is certainly of related interest: Mahatma K.H. (incidentally the author of both ML#54 and ML#92), in his letters to A.P. Sinnett, describes the subject of his often unintentional tendency towards reproducing passages taken from other sources. In ML#49, dated August 5, 1881 (2 years before the occurrence of the 'Kiddle Incident'), we read:

"Quotation from Tennyson? Really cannot say. Some stray lines picked up in the astral light or in somebody's brain and remembered, I never forget what I once see or read. A bad habit. So much so, that often and unconsciously to myself I string together sentences of stray words and phrases, before my eyes and which may have been used hundred years ago or will be hundred years hence, in relation to quite a different subject. […]The "Old Lady" [H.P. Blavatsky] called me a "brain pirate" and a plagiarist, the other day for using a whole sentence of five lines, which, she is firmly convinced, I must have pilfered from Dr. Wilder's brain as three months later, he reproduced it in an essay of his on prophetic intuition. Never had a look into the old philosopher's brain cells. Got it somewhere in a northern current -- don't know. Write this for your information as something new for you, I suppose. Thus a child may be born bearing the greatest resemblance and features to another person, thousands of miles off, no connexion to the mother, never seen by her, but whose floating image was impressed upon her soul-memory, during sleep or even waking hours, and reproduced upon the sensitized plate of living flesh she carries in her. Yet, I believe, the lines quoted, were written by Tennyson years ago, and they are published.”

With the occurrence of the 'Kiddle Incident', much heated discussion ensued, with many different participants, and varying viewpoints. Mahatma K.H. commented regarding this incident as follows, in other private letters to A.P. Sinnett:

"The letter in question was framed by me while on a journey and on horse-back. It was dictated mentally, in the direction of, and "precipitated" by, a young chela not yet expert at this branch of Psychic chemistry, and who had to transcribe it from the hardly visible imprint. Half of it, therefore, was omitted and the other half more or less distorted by the "artist." When asked by him at the time, whether I would look it over and correct I answered, imprudently, I confess -- "anyhow will do, my boy -- it is of no great importance if you skip a few words." I was physically very tired by a ride of 48 hours consecutively, and (physically again) -- half asleep. Besides this I had very important business to attend to psychically and therefore little remained of me to devote to that letter. It was doomed, I suppose. When I woke I found it had already been sent on, and, as I was not then anticipating its publication, I never gave it from that time a thought. " (ML#92)


“When you write upon some subject you surround yourself with books of references etc.: when we write upon something the Western opinion about which is unknown to us, we surround ourselves with hundreds of paras: upon this particular topic from dozens of different works impressed upon the Akasa. What wonder then, that not only a chela entrusted with the work and innocent of any knowledge of the meaning of plagiarism, but even myself should use occasionally a whole sentence already existent, applying it only to another our own idea?” (ML#65)


A. Trevor Barker's article "The Writing of the Mahatma Letters" could be referred to in relation to the above quotations. Furthermore, H.S. Olcott, the first President and co-Founder of the Theosophical Society, in a public response to W.Stainton Moses's comments regarding the 'Kiddle Incident',  wrote as follows:

“Has he [W.S. Moses] lost sight of the several instances of similar re-appropriation of ideas without credit in mediumistic literature, where the bona fides of the scribe were undoubted? Am I wrong in the recollection that the printing of Mr. Duguid’s "Hafed, Prince of Persia," an "inspirational" work written under test conditions, as alleged, had to be stopped, because a very extended plagiarism was discovered, and the publishers of the work affected sued for infringement of copyright? And that none were so surprised at the plagiarism as the witnesses to Mr. Duguid’s literary labour? How many such examples of this duplex -- even coincident writing -- might be discovered [?] . Outsiders ignorant of the very rudiments of spiritual phenomena and philosophy may be excused for seeking in craft and dishonesty the sole explanation of such facts; but we whose studies are of things noumenal have so many unexplained mysteries, that it seems in wretched taste to adopt the tone of the cheap jacks of the weekly Press, when a question of this sort is to be discussed.”

He continues:

“In the last number of the Nineteenth Century, in the very thoughtful article "After Death," occurs a passage of about a dozen lines which is word for word identical with what was written by this same Koot Hoomi, two years ago, in a private letter to myself. Yet no third party has seen the letter, nor have I copied or printed the passage in question. Again, when the report of one of Mrs. Hardinge Britten’s American Lectures appeared in -- if I mistake not -- the Spiritual Scientist, Madame Blavatsky found in it a passage verbatim from the as yet unpublished "Isis Unveiled," which Mrs. Britten had not seen. And the M. S. was actually altered so as to avoid the appearance of plagiarism.”

We find part of W.S. Moses ’s reply to H.S. Olcott being as follows:

“What Colonel Olcott regards as "a few unquoted and unimportant sentences," I am bound to say I regard far otherwise. Though I am fully aware of the various cases of plagiarism which he alludes to, and of others besides, in which the bona fides of the scribe is quite unquestioned, as, emphatically, it is in this case, it has never yet occurred, I think to any Spiritualist to attempt to pass off such cases as unimportant. We by no means ignore their existence or their significance. We do not refer them to fraud on the part of the medium […] The cases which Colonel Olcott gives are extremely striking, and should command the serious attention of all unprejudiced investigators of the subject now under discussion. […] Since Colonel Olcott challenges me because I attach importance -- in common, I may say parenthetically, with every person with whom I have conversed on the subject -- to what he thinks "fit only for children," I reply, first that it is a fact -- an oasis in the midst of a desert of speculative theory. And secondly, I say that, until it is fairly met, it is to the mind of most men an ugly fact. Here I give full credit for what Colonel Olcott adduces as evidence of the working of an occult law of which this may be an instance […]”.


Published by the Blavatsky Study Center / Blavatsky Archives