One of the more curious terms of unknown origin in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, is “Lanoo,” a term used by her to indicate a disciple. The term is found in both her translation of the Book of the Golden Precepts given in The Voice of the Silence, and in the Book of Dzyan given in The Secret Doctrine.
In regards to the former (Book of Golden Precepts) HPB says in a letter dated Feb., 1890:
“They are grand aphorisms, indeed. I may say so, because you know I did not invent them! I only translated them from Telugu, the oldest South-Indian dialect. There are three treatises, about morals, and the moral principles of the Mongolian and Dravidian mystics.”
In regards to the latter (Book of Dzyan), she says:
“The Stanzas which form the thesis of every section are given throughout in their modern translated version, as it would be worse than useless to make the subject still more difficult by introducing the archaic phraseology of the original, with its puzzling style and words. Extracts are given from the Chinese, Tibetan and Sanskrit translations of the original Senzar Commentaries and Glosses on the Book of Dzyan—these being now rendered for the first time into a European language.”
As seen here, HPB suggests the existence of an ancient language preceding all known languages, which she calls Senzar, and which she claims to be the original language underlying both the Book of Dzyan and the Book of the Golden Precepts. In addition to this, however, she lists the other languages given above. These statements may thus give us a starting point in attempting to locate the term Lanoo in some known text or dictionary. We here have four languages to begin with: Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan and Telugu. From HPB’s mention of the Mongolian and Dravidian mystics we may add the Mongolian language as well as Dravidian languages such as Tamil and Kannada. In addition to these, we find terms used in the verses found in The Voice of the Silence from other languages, such as Pali, Sinhalese, and Marathi. And in addition to these, we will ourselves suggest including Nepali, as HPB makes mention of Nepal in connection with her own Master. This gives us eleven languages to begin our search with:
Sanskrit, Pali, Nepali, Marathi, Sinhalese; Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian; Telugu, Tamil, Kannada.
In our researches we have been unable to find a term with similar phonetics and meaning in Sanskrit, Pali, Marathi, Mongolian, Telugu, Tamil or Kannada. In Tibetan the term for disciple is སློབ་མ lobma (slob ma), which appears to be the closest term in that language, but its pronunciation is significantly different than “lanoo” and is thus not likely to be the term we are searching for. This leaves us with Sinhalese, Chinese and Nepali in which we have found some possibilities which require further research.
HPB connects the term Lanoo the Sanskrit Chela (चेल cela or चेट ceṭa), meaning “a servant or slave.” If we follow this definition we find one possible avenue of investigation in the Chinese, this being the character 奴 nú, which also means “slave, servant.” When you want to say “slave of ___” in Chinese, you can put “nú” at the end of a term, e.g.
Now, in Chinese, the term used for a Lama is simply a phonetic spelling of the Tibetan term བླ་མ lama (bla ma). In Chinese this is written 喇嘛 lǎma. This syllable “བླ la” Tibetan means literally “high, above” and is used commonly to indicate the spirit or soul. The ending syllable -ma is an agent suffix, thus a Lama is the spirit or soul as an agent being, a guru or teacher or spiritual leader. Because the Chinese term is just a phonetic rendering of the Tibetan, the same meaning is carried over. The character 喇 lǎ, then, can in this context carry the same meaning of spirit, soul, higher self. We also see that in the Chinese it is associated with wind, in the same way as in other traditions where spirit or soul is connected with wind or breath etc.
If we combine this with the character 奴 nú we would have the compound character 喇奴 lǎnú, which could mean something like “slave to [one’s] spirit/soul” or even “slave to a spiritual teacher,” thus carrying the same meaning as the Sanskrit चेल cela (chela), meaning a slave or servant, or its use in Nepali to more specifically indicate a disciple.
Further research is required here to determine if such a term has been used in Chinese texts; we have thus far been unable to find such an example. Other Chinese terms that use 奴 nú, or terms with similar phonetics, need to also be researched in more depths; there are several characters carrying the phonetic sound “la” besides the one explored above.
There is a term in Sinhalese which may be a good candidate for Lanoo, this being ලනු lanu, meaning “strings, cords, lines, ropes.” In The Voice of the Silence, p. 56, one of the verses reads: “Disciples may be likened to the strings of the soul-echoing Vīṇā.” This connection between disciples and strings may perhaps connect to this Sinhalese term. HPB draws from Sinhalese several times in The Voice of the Silence, including terms used to indicate gurus and disciples, such as upādya and sōvan, so it would not be surprising to find Lanoo also drawn from that language. Again, further research is needed to determine if this term has been used in such a context in Sinhalese texts.
There is a term in Napali which could have some connection to discipleship, this being लानु lānu, “to take away, to bring, to carry.” See for instance Praśna Upaniṣad and elsewhere in the ancient texts of India where disciples bring firewood to the guru to be accepted. This is not a particularly strong basis, but further research could be done to determine if such a term has been used in this context.
As of now, this is the extent of our research into this term. Other languages need to be consulted, and examples of similar sounding terms need to be explored in texts preceding HPB’s use of the term.