The Esoteric Tradition by G. de Purucker

Copyright © 2011 by Theosophical University Press


Chapter 2

Allegory and Mystical Symbolism

The fact of a body of esoteric teaching, which is held private for the study and use of those who prove themselves to be qualified, is nothing new in the history of religion and philosophy. This procedure is a matter of actual necessity, for it is not possible to teach one unacquainted with the elements of a study the deeper reaches thereof until he has fitted himself by at least a modicum of moral and intellectual training to understand them.

Who has not heard of religious fanatics, and the mischiefs that they have wrought upon their fellow men? They are an example in point of what ill-digested and misunderstood religious and philosophical thought can do upon weak or unprepared minds. If a man does not understand a noble teaching properly, its very beauty, its very profundity, may so fascinate and destroy his judgment that he may be swept from his normal mental moorings in ordinary principles of ethics. The stream of such an unprepared man's emotions, sympathetically and automatically following the urge that these teachings give to him, might readily at some moment of mental or moral weakness cause him to do psychological injury to another, thereby becoming the cause of intellectual ethical damage to such man — as the history of religious fanaticism shows us clearly.

Some of the religious and philosophical teachings given out publicly in our age were esoteric in past times, and were then taught under the veil of allegory and mystical symbol. It is not easy in our pragmatical age to understand why such reticence should be had, because today a common saying is that truth can do only good, and that facts of nature are the common property of mankind, and hence there is no possible danger in the communication of knowledge. Yet surely a more fantastic fallacy does not exist. Who does not know that knowledge can be and often is most abominably abused by selfish individuals? Scientists today are beginning to see that the communication of all the truths of nature to everybody, without certain preparatory safeguards, is a course of proceeding which is fraught with perilous and hid dangers, not only to individuals but to the whole of mankind.

Two of the teachings now promulgated publicly by the theosophical movement, but which were esoteric in certain eras, are the doctrines of karma and reimbodiment. Karma is a word used to describe the so-called laws of nature, briefly set forth in the saying of Paul the Apostle: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." It is the doctrine of consequences, of results following thought and action, inevitably and with absolute justice, whether such consequences be immediately forthcoming in time or be postponed to a later period.

Karma is that total of a soul, which is itself, brought into present being by its own willing and thinking and feeling, working upon the fabric and the substance of itself, and thus preparing its future destiny, as its present existence was the destiny prepared for itself by its own past lives.

As H. P. Blavatsky says in The Voice of the Silence:

Learn that no efforts, not the smallest — whether in right or wrong direction — can vanish from the world of causes. E'en wasted smoke remains not traceless. "A harsh word uttered in past lives, is not destroyed but ever comes again." (Precepts of the Prasanga School.) The pepper plant will not give birth to roses, nor the sweet jessamine's silver star to thorn or thistle turn.
Thou canst create this "day" thy chances for thy "morrow." In the "Great Journey," ("Great Journey" or the whole complete cycle of existences, in one "Round"), causes sown each hour bear each its harvest of effects, for rigid Justice rules the World. With mighty sweep of never erring action, it brings to mortals lives of weal or woe, the Karmic progeny of all our former thoughts and deeds. — p. 34

It is utterly erroneous to suppose on the one hand that karma is fatalism and that human beings are under its blind and fortuitous action, the victims of an inscrutable, unmoral, destiny of blind chance; or on the other hand that karma is the creation or created law of action of some cosmic entity, different and apart from the universe itself, and therefore extra-cosmic. It is equally erroneous to suppose that whatever happens to a man in his endless series of lives, during the aeons-long course of his peregrinations, is in strict accuracy unmerited, or that events in particular or in general happen to him apart from his own original causative action. It is necessary to emphasize this because some are under the impression derived from certain passages of H. P. Blavatsky that there is such a thing as "unmerited karma"; forgetting that in order properly to understand her teaching, one must include every statement by her on this topic — ignoring none. There is, indeed, relative injustice or relative "unmerited suffering" in the world, brought about by the interaction of the various parts of man's complex constitution — the higher principles, such as the reincarnating ego, frequently in the course of karmic destiny bringing upon the merely personal man events for which that personal man in any one life is not himself directly responsible. But the reincarnating ego was fully responsible, although its lower vehicle, the astral or personal man, through which the reincarnating ego works, does not recognize the justice of the misfortunes and sufferings and karmic destiny caused in other lives — and therefore to this astral or personal man these blows of destiny seem to be both unmerited and unjust. Yet, in very truth, as H. P. Blavatsky says: "there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life" (The Secret Doctrine 1:643-4).

Man himself in former lives set in action the causes which later, by rigid karmic justice, bring about the effects which he in the present life complains of and calls unmerited. This same mistake in misunderstanding the logic and delicate and subtle reasoning of the teaching caused in early Christianity that first fatal departure from the recognition of infinite and automatic justice in the world, to the idea that because man's sufferings seemed inexplicable they were therefore unmerited and due to the inscrutable wisdom of Almighty God — whose decrees man should accept in humility without questioning the wisdom of the providence thus erected in explanation.

Reincarnation comes under the more general doctrine of reimbodiment. It is the teaching that the human ego returns to earth at some future time after the change men call death, and also after a more or less long period of rest in the invisible realms called devachan. Such reincarnation takes place in order that the ego may learn new lessons on earth, in new times, in new environments; taking up again on this earth the old links of sympathy and of friendship, of hatred and dislike, which were apparently ruptured by the hand of death when the ego-soul left our spheres.

These two teachings once held secret, or openly promulgated in a more or less imperfect form, are examples of the manner in which from age to age when the need arises for so doing, esoteric teachings are openly developed by the Brotherhood of sages and seers. Such teachings profoundly modify civilization because they profoundly change human psychology and the spiritual and intellectual vision of mankind. Few people realize the enormous but always invisible and quiet psychological leverage that new ideas have upon human consciousness; and this is especially so with teachings of a spiritual or intellectual type. All these teachings are replete with the divine conceptions of the gods who first gave Truth to men; and this is the secret of the immense sway that Religion per se (apart from mere degenerate religions) has upon human intellect.

—————

It was the archaic imbodying of these divine conceptions of the gods in ancient mystery rites and stories that brought about the formal institution of ceremonial initiations. Every people, every race, had its own variety of the same fundamental verities. The Greeks had their own Mysteries, which from earliest times were functions of the state and carried on under the sanctions of law, such as the initiatory institutions of Eleusis and Samothrace.

The Jews likewise had their own system of mystical research, which in a more or less complete degree is imbodied in the Qabbalah — the traditional teaching handed down from teacher to pupil, who in his turn graduated and became a teacher, then handing it to his pupils as a sacred, secret charge communicated from the Fathers. Among the Christians there remain rumors which have reached our own age of the former existence in primitive Christian communities of a body of secret teaching. Jerome, for instance, one of the most respected of the Church Fathers, mentions the fact, although with his sense of strong orthodox loyalty he speaks of it with contempt — a proof, if nothing else existed, of his ignorance of the heart of the teaching of his Master Jesus.

It is also common knowledge that the great religions of Hindustan all had their respective esoteric bodies, in which the abler and more trustworthy students received and later passed on the noble wisdom. Even so-called savage tribes as the anthropologists have shown us have their peculiar and secret tribal mysteries — memories in most cases from the days when their forefathers formed the leading and most civilized races of the globe.

This necessity for keeping secret a certain amount of the Esoteric Tradition accounts for the symbolic imagery, often beautiful, but in some cases almost repulsive, in which all the old literatures have been cast. The same natural difficulty of delivery to untrained ears and minds was operative in the early days of the Christian Church. One may find many of the early Church Fathers writing about the so-called Kingdom of Christ which was to come. They evidently enough did not tell all that they believed about this.

A Christian witness to the existence of an esoteric teaching in primitive Christian communities was Origen, who mentions this in his book Against Celsus. Celsus was a Greek philosopher who disputed the claims of the Christian teachers of his day to have pretty nearly all the truth that the world contained. Origen, who was really a great and broad-minded man, wrote on the subject of an esoteric doctrine in the non-Christian religions of his own time. To paraphrase:

In Egypt, the philosophers have a secret wisdom concerning the nature of the Divine, which wisdom is disclosed to the people only under the garment of allegories and fables. . . . All the Eastern nations — the Persians, the Indians, the Syrians — conceal secret mysteries under the cover of religious fables and allegories; the truly wise [the initiated] of all nations understand the meaning of these; but the uninstructed multitudes see the symbols only and the covering garment. — Bk. I, chap. xii

This was said by Origen in his attempt at rebuttal of the attack made against the Christian system by many pagans to the effect that Christianity was but a compost or a rehash of misunderstood pagan mythological fables. Origen claimed that in Christianity there was a similar esoteric system; and he was right, so far as that one argument goes.

One may find in the Zohar of the Jewish Qabbalah a statement to the effect that the man who claims to understand the Hebrew Bible in its literal meaning is a fool: "Every word of it has a secret and sublime sense, which the wise know."

Maimonides, one of the greatest of the Jewish Rabbis of the Middle Ages, who died in 1204, writes in his Guide for the Perplexed:

We should never take literally what is written in the Book of the Creation, nor hold the same ideas about it that the people hold. If it were otherwise, our learned ancient sages would not have been to so great labor in order to conceal the real sense, and to hold before the vision of the uninstructed people the veil of allegory which conceals the truths that it contains. Taken literally, that work contains the most absurd and far-fetched ideas of the Divine. Whoever can guess the real sense, ought to guard carefully his knowledge not to divulge it. This is a rule taught by our wise men, especially in connection with the work of the six days. . . . — II, xxix

It is quite possible that many things will be met with that at first sight may not please the inquirer in searching these literatures of bygone times. Before forming final conclusions adverse to what we do not understand, is it not wiser to withhold judgment instead of saying that the ancients, in writing as they did, were a pack of ignorant or sensuous dolts? Some of the veils in which the old teachings are wrapped may seem at times ludicrous to us; yet some of these garments themselves are sublime in their harmony and symmetrical outline, while others are actually gross in expression. But the fault perhaps is as much in us as it may be to some extent in the method used by those great men of ancient times, because we neither grasp the spirit which dictated those particular forms of expression, nor understand clearly the conditions under which they were enunciated.

For instance, turn to the New Testament, where in Matthew (10:34) one finds a statement to the effect that Jesus said: "I come not to bring peace but a sword." An amazing speech for the "Prince of Peace" — if taken literally! Shall we then accept it at its face value? Or does not our intuition tell us that there is a meaning behind and within the mere words?

—————

In his Second Epistle, the Church Father St. Clement said that Jesus, once having been asked when his kingdom would come, replied: "It will come when two and two make one; when the outside is like the inside; and when there is neither male nor female" (12:2). Many people have exercised their minds over this enigma, yet this parable sets forth in actual prophetic strain what theosophy says will sometime in the future come to be.

Taking it clause by clause: "When two and two make one." The human being is divided into seven principles or elements: an uppermost duad, which we may call the spiritual monad because its parts are really inseparable and dual only in manifestation; an intermediate or psychological duad: and a lower ternary. This lower ternary is the purely physical human being, composed of body, vital essence, and a model or astral body, around which the physical body is built. This ternary undergoes complete dissolution at death, leaving the inner two duads, each one a unit — the spiritual nature and the psychological nature. In the far distant future these two duads, through the processes of evolutionary growth, will become one entity: that is, the psychological or intermediate nature will be so improved, will become so perfect a vehicle for the manifestation of the upper duad or the inner spiritual god within, that it will coalesce with the latter and thus become one intrinsic unitary being. Men who in our own and in past times have succeeded in accomplishing this unification of the two duads — "when the two and two make one" — are called Christs, adopting a term from the Christian system. The Buddhists call such a human being a Buddha, "an awakened one," "an enlightened one."

We pass to the next clause: "when the outside is like the inside." The human body was not always as it now is — a coarse, physical instrument, through which the most delicate forces of the soul and of the spirit must play if they are to express themselves at all. This difficulty in expressing the inner faculties and powers will not be so great in the distant future; because as the inner man evolves, so also does his physical encasement: toward a thinning of the gross compactness of the material, causing it to approximate ever more closely the substantial fabric of the sheaths of consciousness of the inner man. Thus, "when the outside is like the inside" means: when the living, conscious, exterior instrument or encasement becomes fitter to express more and more easily the divine and spiritual faculties of the inner luminary.

Now for the third clause: "when there is neither male nor female." The present state of the human race as divided into men and women was not always thus in the past, nor will it be thus in the far distant future. The time is coming when there will be neither men nor women, but human beings only; for sex, like many other attributes of the human entity, is a transitory evolutionary stage. The human race shall then have evolved out of this manner of expressing the positive and negative qualities of the psychological economy of the human being. When there shall no longer be either male or female, but simply human beings dwelling in bodies of luminous light, then the inner god, the Christ Immanent, the Dhyani-Bodhisattva, will be able to express itself with relative perfection. Then the Kingdom of Christ, of which the early Christian mystics wrote, shall have arrived.

A study of theosophical teachings will prove the existence of a great wisdom lying behind these parables, not only in the Christian system, but likewise in all the great philosophical and religious literatures of whatever race. These parables and mystical teachings given under the veil of metaphor and allegory are in no sense merely invented mystical imaginings, but actually symbolic or pictorial representations of events which have occurred in the past history of the human race, or, mayhap, they are prophetic visionings of events which will arrive in the future.

Another example of the mystical method of teaching is taken from the writings of the early Church Father, Irenaeus. In his work, Against Heresies, he says that Papias, a disciple of John the Apostle, heard the following parable from John's own lips:

The Lord taught and said that the time will come when vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and each branch shall have ten thousand branchlets, and each branchlet of a branch shall have ten thousand tendrils, and each tendril will have ten thousand bunches of grapes, and each bunch shall contain ten thousand grapes, and each grape, when pressed, will yield twenty-five gallons of wine; and when any one of the saints shall take hold of any bunch, another bunch will exclaim, "I am a better bunch; take me; and bless the Lord by me!" — Bk. V, ch. xxxiii, 3

In The Gospel according to John, Jesus is alleged to have said:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. . . .
I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that remaineth in me and I in him, he bringeth forth much fruit, but cut off from me [the Vine] ye produce nothing. If a man remain not in me, he as a branch is cut off, and withers; and men gather such and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. Remain in me and I will remain in you. As the branch produceth no fruits unless it remain in the vine, so ye cannot unless ye remain in me. — 15:1, 5-7

In this beautiful Christian parable of the "Vine and the Branches" the Vine is the spiritual nature of man; and in the allegory from Irenaeus these various branches and branchlets, tendrils, and individual grapes are evidently intended to represent the disciples, great and small, of the Teachers.

We prosaic Occidentals find it difficult to forego a sense of amusement when we hear tales or allegories so quaintly simple in their blind trust; but, doubtless, large numbers in those early Christian times believed these tales as true forecasts of future events, and that they contained a great truth under a mystical garment. Any such allegory proffered to them, with an accompanying statement that it was handed down as one of the sayings of their Lord Jesus, was accepted either at face value, or as containing some deeply hid mystic verity. This belief was often valid, because it was the custom in those days to clothe difficult doctrines under the guise of parables.

The Buddha, the Christ, Plato, Apollonius of Tyana, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Zoroaster of Persia, all thus taught. Yes, even the pragmatical Jewish rabbis write in the same allegorical and veiled strain. They inform us, for instance, that there will be 60,000 towns in the hills of Judaea, and that each of these towns will contain 60,000 inhabitants; likewise they say that when their messiah shall come, Jerusalem will be a city of immense extant: that it will then have 10,000 towns within its purlieus and 10,000 palaces; while Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai declares that there will be in the city 180,000 shops where nothing but perfumes will be sold, and that each grape in the Judaean vineyards will yield thirty casks of wine!

This example of Jewish mystical allegory is taken from Bartolocci's Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica. It employs the same images that the Christian allegory does, of the vine and the grape and the wine, with, doubtless, the same essential meaning.

—————

Without the key to interpretations, much in the various ancient world systems remains not only paradoxical to modern scholarship, but usually inexplicable. Let us turn to two passages in the New Testament: In The Gospel according to Matthew — "according to" obviously signifying that the writer is not Matthew, but someone who claimed to write according to Matthew's teachings — occurs the following:

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a great voice, saying: "Eli! Eli! lama sabachthani!" which is: "God of me! God of me! Why hast thou forsaken me?" And certain of those standing there, having heard, said that "This man calls upon Elias." — 27:46-7

And in The Gospel according to Mark:

And in the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a great voice: "Eloi! Eloi! lama sabachthani!" which, interpreted, is: "The God of me, unto what hast thou forsaken me?" And certain of those standing, having heard, said: "See, he calls upon Elias." — 15:34-5

In these two extracts, the author has made the translation from the original Greek, and consequently the Hebrew sentence which appears in both these extracts is transliterated into English characters in such fashion as to give as closely as possible the phonetic pronunciation of the original Hebrew. The Greek manuscripts of both Matthew and Mark vary among themselves as to the spelling of this Hebrew sentence, yet in no case are the variations more than different attempts by the Greek writers to spell in Greek characters the Hebrew words of this sentence. Hebrew has certain sounds which Greek has not, and consequently the Greek writers had to choose such Greek alphabetic characters as seemed to be closest in sound to the Hebrew. The really important point is that these are unmistakable Hebrew words, which anyone knowing both Greek and Hebrew will easily understand the need of properly transliterating in order to approximate the sound of the original Hebrew vocables. Whatever the transliteration of the Hebrew may be, the meaning is perfectly clear, and both Matthew and Mark have mistranslated the Hebrew to mean something that the Hebrew words do not contain.

It should be stated in passing that theosophists do not accept the medieval idea of a word-for-word divine inspiration controlling the original writers of the New Testament, nor again in the inspiration, divine or otherwise, of the translators of the "authorized version" of King James. The mystical story of Jesus is a vaguely symbolic history of initiation, in which Jesus, later called the Christ, is figurated as the exemplar of any great man undergoing the trials of the initiatory cycle. This does not mean that such a sage as Jesus did not live. Such a great sage did exist in a period somewhat earlier than the supposed beginning of the Christian era. The idea is that the New Testament sets forth a symbolic history of the initiation of a sage bearing the name of Jesus.

Now, these words Eloi! Eloi! lama sabachthani! are Hellenizied Hebrew so far as the New Testament spelling goes. It is usually said by biblical apologists that they are Aramaic words, which seems a forced attempt to explain the otherwise inexplicable; for the words are good Hebrew and also virtually good Chaldaic [Semitic Babylonian], and contain a sense violently different from the translation as given in these two extracts, as will be shown.

The meaning of this Hebrew sentence is not "God of me! God of me! Why hast thou forsaken me?" but "God of me! God of me! Why givest thou me such peace?" or also, as the Hebrew verb shabah could be translated: "Why glorifiest thou me so greatly!" Shabah means to "praise," to "glorify," also to "give peace to." Surely this translation, outside of the original words being good and true Hebrew, is more concordant with the story of the gospel itself, nearer to the story of Jesus as the Christians themselves gave it to us. Why should the "son of God," who was likewise the human vehicle of one of the three inseparable persons of the Trinity, therefore an inseparable part of the Godhead itself according to the Christian teaching, exclaim in words of agony from the Cross, according to the legend, "My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?"

To turn to the Old Testament: in the Twenty-second Psalm occurs this: "My God My God! Why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?" The first Hebrew words here are: "'Eli 'Eli lamah 'azabthani!" and are correctly translated. The Hebrew word 'azab does mean "to forsake," "to leave," "to abandon," and is a natural exclamation for David to make in view of the situation that then supposedly existed. It is a very human cry, a cry uttered in despair, which any man might have made under stress of great spiritual and intellectual trial.

But as said, in the New Testament, we have the "Son of God" saying: "Why hast thou abandoned me?" Yet when we look at the words which the gospel writers themselves give, we find that they mean nothing of the sort, but mean, on the contrary, an exclamation of ecstasy. The suggestiveness involved in the hints of an esoteric significance contained in this tangled New Testament episode is important. If the writers according to Matthew and according to Mark had this Psalm in their minds when they made this mistranslation, we only ask why they did it, since they were supposedly two men who understood Aramaic and Hebrew. If these two gospels were written in Alexandria the situation remains the same, because Alexandria then had a very large and learned Hebrew colony. It would seem that any such attempt to explain the enigma is entirely impermissible, because the Hebrew word 'azab used in Psalm 22, verse 1, and meaning "to abandon" or "to forsake," is not the Hebrew word, shabah, used by the two gospel-writers, meaning "to praise," "to glorify."

But, and just here is the point, the writers of these gospels, writing as they did of this "suffering" — ancient term for the initiation of one undergoing his glorification, his raising into temporary divinity — used exactly the proper word. For there comes a moment, we are told, in this initiation cycle, a moment which approaches the supreme trial, when the initiate has to face the worst in himself, and the worst that the world of matter can bring against him, and pass through this severest of trials successfully. And in that solemn moment — when no inner light seems present to strengthen, to assist, and to illuminate; when, according to the prearranged mechanism itself of the initiatory rite, which was both spiritual and psychologic, working on the suffering man — he was temporarily divorced from all the help that his own spiritual-divine nature could give him. He was obliged to stand alone as a man in his sole but nevertheless highly trained human nature, and, facing the worst, to come through the test successfully as a man, and then and there to achieve the self-conscious reunion with his inner god. Success spelt glory such as human consciousness can never experience greater. It was at this supreme moment of reunion with the glory of the living god within, that the man, thus successful and surmounting in his sole manhood the fearful trial before him, cried in both ecstasy and inexpressible spiritual relief: "O my God! O my God! How thou dost glorify me!"

These two writers may have themselves been copying from an older and still more mystical doctrine, imbodied in some earlier document then under their hands, and, either from deliberation or from error, may have omitted words or passages which were intermediate between the Hebrew sentence they gave and the translation of it which they either themselves made or quoted. If so, what might have been this older and now lost source?

—————

The Persian Sufi mystics, who were adherents of what may be called the theosophy of Persian Mohammedanism, wrote of the flowing wine cup and of the pleasures of the tavern, of the unalloyed joy and the transcendent bliss experienced in company with their Beloved; and yet, most emphatically their writings were the opposite in meaning of the sensuous imagery of the love song. The Persian mystic, Abu Yazid, who lived in the ninth century, wrote: "I am the wine I drink, and the cupbearer of it." The wine cup symbolized in general the "Grace of God," the influences and workings of the spiritual powers infilling the universe. The same Sufi writer said: "I went from god to god until they cried from me, in me, "O! Thou, I!"

What graphic language is this! As though the soul of the poet were attempting to wash itself clean of all personality, and striving to say that his own Inmost was the Inmost of the All.

Anyone who reads carefully the profound poems of the Sufi mystics, and is conscious of their delicate spirituality, knows, unless he be rendered foolish by prejudice, that the writing was wholly symbolic. Turn but to the quatrains of 'Omar Khayyam, or to an extract from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz of Jalalu'ddin Rumi which Nicholson has beautifully translated as follows:

Lo, for I to myself am unknown, now in God's name what must I do?
I adore not the cross nor the Crescent, I am not a Giaour nor a Jew,
East nor West, land nor sea, is my home; I have kin nor with angel nor gnome;
I am wrought not of fire nor of foam, I am shaped not of dust nor of dew.
I was born not in China afar, not in Saqsin and not in Bulghar;
Not in India, where five rivers are, nor 'Iraq nor Khurasan I grew.
Not in this world nor that world I dwell, not in Paradise neither in Hell;
Not from Eden and Rizwan I fell, not from Adam my lineage I drew.
In a place beyond uttermost place, in a tract without shadow or trace,
Soul and body transcending I live in the Soul of my Loved One anew!

Here it is the Divine Source of which the Sufi poet sings, the ultimate Home of us all.

The Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible contains the same suggestive sensual imagery, although the Sufi mystics had the excuse that under the fear of the strong arm of the Moslem government they dared not write what would have been considered to be unorthodox teachings, and thus they chose the love song, which had the appearance of innocuousness. Apparently the Song of Solomon describes nought but the physical charms of the most beloved of the Hebrew king; and yet anyone who has some knowledge of this figurative method of symbolic writing easily reads beneath the lines and seizes the inner thought.

Let us turn our faces to the Far Orient. One will be amazed at the revelations that are to be found in the various branches of ancient Chinese literature, mystical, religious, philosophic. One of the greatest teachers of China was Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism, one of the noblest religions and philosophical systems of the world. According to legend, he was conceived in a supernatural fashion, as so many others of the great world teachers are alleged to have been. His mother carried him for seventy-two years before he was born, so that when at last he saw physical light, his hair was white, as if with age, and from this he was known in after times by the name "the old boy." His biographers tell us that when his lifework was done, he traveled westward toward Tibet, and disappeared; and it is not known where and when he died. Following the few facts which seem to be authentic, and setting aside the mass of mythological material which has been woven around his name and personality, Lao-tse would appear to have been one of those periodic incarnations of a ray of what in the Esoteric Tradition is mystically called Maha-Vishnu, in other words an avatara. There seems to be no doubt whatsoever that he was one of the least understood envoys or messengers from the Brotherhood who periodically send out representatives from among themselves in order to introduce an impulse toward spirituality.

His great literary work is called the Tao Te Ching — "The Book of the Doing of Tao." Tao means the "way," or the "path," among other mystical significances; te means "virtue." But tao while meaning the way or the path, also means the wayfarer, or he who travels on the Path.

It is the Way of Tao not to act from any personal motive; to conduct affairs without feeling the trouble of them; to taste without being aware of the flavor; to account the great as small and the small as great; to repay injury with kindness. — Tao Te Ching, ch. lxiii

The last sentence of this remarkable book is cast in the following strain:

It is the Tao of Heaven to benefit and not to injure; it is the Tao of the Sage to do and not to strive. — ch. lxxxi

The meaning of these logical opposites is: fret not at all; worry not at all; but simply be and do! Here most graphically expressed is the difference between the undeveloped understanding of the ordinary man and the spiritual wisdom of the sage. The sage knows that everything the universe contains is in man, because man is an inseparable part of the cosmic whole; and a man stands in his own light, hinders his own progress, by contentious striving and by constantly tensing his spiritual, intellectual, and physical muscles, thus wearing out his strength in vain and futile motions. Lao-tse said: "Be what is within you. Do what that which is within you tells you to do." This is the secret of Tao.

Thus far the mystical thought of ancient China as exemplified in the teachings regarding the Tao. Lack of space forbids illustrating further strata of Chinese mystical thought from other sources, such as Mahayana Buddhism. Chinese Buddhistic literature alone is a mine of profound mystical philosophy.

It is to India that one should turn to find the most open examples of the archaic tradition which during the last three or four millennia has spread its pervasive influence not only throughout Asia, but since the time of Anquetil-Duperron has been affecting more strongly with each passing century the peoples of the West. Yet even in India, the modern representatives of the old philosophical religions have degenerated from their pristine purity. If China and Tibet may be called mines of esoteric lore to be unearthed by the intuitive researcher, still more aptly may this qualification be given to the magnificent literatures of ancient Hindustan. Possibly some of the noblest of archaic Indian mystical thought is imbodied in those relics of a now almost forgotten past called the Upanishads. In these Upanishads, gems of unparalleled beauty, the esoteric teaching is carefully hid from the superficial scrutiny under the habiliments of allegory, parable, and symbol.

To illustrate the method of imparting information in the Upanishads, let us content ourselves with pointing to the case, actual or imaginary, of Uddalaka-Aruni, one of the great Brahmana-teachers of this portion of the cycle of the Vedic literature. Uddalaka-Aruni is teaching his son, Svetaketu, who asks him for knowledge:

"Fetch me from that spot a fruit of the Nyagrodha-tree."
"Here it is, Sir!"
"Break it open."
"It is now broken open, Sir!"
"What do you see there?"
"These seeds, exceeding small."
"Break open one of them."
"One is broken open, Sir."
"What do you see there?"
"Nothing at all, Sir!"
The father then said: "My child, that very subtle essence which you do not see there, of that very essence this huge Nyagrodha-tree exists. Believe it, my child. That which is this subtle essence — in it all that exists has its self. It is the Real; it is the Self; and you, O Svetaketu are it!"
"Please, Sir, tell me yet more," said the child.
"Be it so, my son," the father answered. "Place this salt in water, and then come to me in the morning."
The child did as he was ordered to do. [In the morning] the father said to him: "Bring me the salt which you put in the water last night."
The child looked for it and found it not, for it was melted. The father then said: "Taste the water at the top. How is it?"
The son answered: "It is salty."
"Taste it from the middle layer. How is it?"
The son answered: "It is salty."
"Taste it from the bottom. How is it?"
The child answered: "It is salty."
The father then said: "You may throw it away, and then return to me." The boy did so; yet the salt remained always as before.
Then said the father: "Just so in this person you do not see the Real, my child; yet there in very truth It is. That which is this subtle essence — in it all that is has its Self. It is the Real; it is the Self; and you, O Svetaketu, are It!
"If someone were to strike at the root of this great tree before us, it would bleed, but it would live. If he were to strike at its trunk, it would indeed bleed, yet it would live. If he were to strike at its top, it would indeed bleed, yet it would live. Permeated by the living Self the tree stands strong drinking in its food and rejoicing. "But if the life [which is the living Self] depart from a branch of it, that branch dies; if it leave another branch, that also dies. If it abandon a third, that third dies also. If it leave the whole tree, the entire tree dies. After just this manner, O my child, know the following." Thus spoke the father again.
"This body indeed withers and dies when the living Self abandons it; but the living Self dies not.
"That which is its subtle essence — in it all that exists has its self. It is the Real. It is the Self, and you, O Svetaketu, are it."
"Please, Sir, teach me yet more," said the child.
"Be it so, my son," the father answered.
— Chandogya-Upanishad, vi, 12-13, 11

The different philosophical systems of Hindustan all merit careful study, but it is necessary here merely to point to the six Darsanas or "Visions" to which the genius of the Hindu mind has given birth. Chief among these is the Vedanta, literally the "end of the Vedas," which itself has developed three schools: the "Advaita-Vedanta" or "non-dualistic," of which Sankaracharya was the chief exponent; the "Dvaita-Vedanta" or "dualistic," and the "modified non-dualistic" school called the "Visishta-Advaita." With all the intrinsic worth of these various "Visions" or systems of thought, not one of them rises to higher levels of esoteric teaching than does the doctrine of Gautama the Buddha. Whether one search into the literature of the Southern School, or turn to the more mystical elaboration of the Mahayana as found in Central and Northern Asia, the statement is made unqualifiedly that Buddhism, particularly in its northern Branch, has as strong and vital an inner meaning in its various scriptural writings as has any other of the great world religions.

Allegory, parable, and symbol, while hiding sublime truths, have their universal functions to perform in the delivery of philosophical and religious teaching. Some of these allegories are often crude, possibly repulsive; but this feeling arises, at least in a very large degree, in our automatic mental rejection of what is unfamiliar to us in religious or philosophical thought.

What symbol, after all, could be more displeasing than that of the serpent as so crudely set forth in Genesis? Yet the Hebrew scriptures are not singular in their employment of the serpent as a symbol of a spiritual teacher, because Hindu literature has instances almost without number where the snake or serpent called either naga or sarpa stands as a metaphorical appellation for great teachers, wise men, spirits of light as well as of darkness. Indeed, the inhabitants of Patala — which signifies both a "hell" and also the regions which are the antipodes of the Hindu peninsula — are called Nagas; and Arjuna in the Mahabharata (I, sl. 7788-9) is shown traveling to Patala and there marrying Ūlupi, the daughter of Kauravya, King of the Nagas in Patala.

Why should the serpent in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have been called a "liar" and "deceiver," and that pathetic mythical figure of medieval theology, the Devil, be called by the name of "the tempting serpent" and also the "Father of Lies"? Why should it have been thought that the serpent in the Garden of Eden, which tempted the first human pair to evil-doing, was an imbodiment or the symbol of Satan? On the other hand, why should the serpent with its slow sinuous progress have been taken as the symbol of wisdom as well as used as an appellation for an initiate, as in the expression attributed to Jesus the Christos himself: "Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves"?

The answer is simple. Just as the forces of nature are neutral in themselves, and become what humans call "good" or "bad" because of their use or misuse by individuals, just exactly so a natural entity when employed as a figure in symbology becomes usable in either a good or a bad sense. This fact is shown in the Sanskrit language, where initiates of both the right-hand path and of the left-hand are referred to in words conveying serpentine characteristics. The Brothers of Light are designated as Nagas; whereas the Brothers of Darkness or of the Shadows are more properly designated as Sarpas, derived from srip, meaning "to crawl," "to creep" in sly and stealthy manner, and hence metaphorically "to deceive" by craft or insinuation.

The Brothers of Light and the Sons of Darkness both are focuses of power, of subtle thought and action, of wisdom and energy. The same forces of nature are employed by both. The Nagas, the spiritual "serpents" of wisdom and light, to whom Jesus alluded, are subtle, benevolent, wise, and endowed with the spiritual power to cast off the physical garment, the "skin" or body, when the initiate has grown old, and to assume another fresher, younger, and stronger human body at will. The other class, the Sarpas, are insinuating, deceitful, venomous in motive and action, and therefore very dangerous.

In this usage of the figure of the serpent as the veil of a secret sense, and the elaboration of the serpentine characteristics in the form of allegory and story, the ancient manner of disguising natural truths is clearly seen.


Chapter 3

Contents