From immemorial time, and in all races, there has been current, especially among minds more receptive and thoughtful than the average run, an intuition, persistent and ever-enduring, that there exists somewhere a body of sublime teaching or doctrine which can be had by those who qualify to receive it by becoming worthy depositaries of it. These intimations have frequently found lodgment in legend and myth, and thus have become enshrined or crystallized in the different religious and philosophical records of the human race.
There is probably no single group of religious and philosophical works which does not contain some more or less clear record, given either in open statement or by vague hint, of the existence of this wisdom-teaching. It is one of the most interesting of literary pursuits to trace out and assemble together these scattered and usually imperfect records, found everywhere; and by juxtaposition to discover in them distinct and easily verifiable proof that they are indeed but fragments of an archaic wisdom common to the human race. The literary historian, the mythologer, the anthropologist, all know of the existence of these scattered fragments of archaic thought, but being utterly unable to make anything coherently sensible of them, they are usually falsely ascribed to the inventive genius of so-called primitive man weaving myths and legendary tales about natural phenomena which had occurred and which, because of the fear and awe their appearance had aroused, were thought to be the workings of gods and genii, godlings and demons, some friendly and some inimical to man.
Running in a directly contrary direction is the teaching brought again to the western world by H. P. Blavatsky, who showed in her marvelous books the real and continuing existence in the world of such a body of wisdom-teaching, full and complete, coherent throughout and throughout logically satisfying, and comprising in its totality a marvelous system of very difficult teaching, of information dealing not only with cosmogonic matters embracing the noumena and the phenomena of the universe but, because naturally included in this totality, likewise a complete story of the origin, nature, and destiny of man.
This great system of teaching has been called in different ages the esoteric philosophy, wisdom-religion, secret doctrine, ancient wisdom, or again, the esoteric tradition. As stated by H. P. Blavatsky in the Introductory to her Secret Doctrine:
the Esoteric philosophy is alone calculated to withstand, in this age of crass and illogical materialism, the repeated attacks on all and everything man holds most dear and sacred, in his inner spiritual life. . . . Moreover, Esoteric philosophy reconciles all religions, strips every one of its outward, human garments, and shows the root of each to be identical with that of every other great religion. It proves the necessity of an absolute Divine Principle in nature. . . .
. . . The Secret Doctrine was the universally diffused religion of the ancient and prehistoric world. Proofs of its diffusion, authentic records of its history, a complete chain of documents, showing its character and presence in every land, together with the teaching of all its great adepts, exist to this day . . .
. . . Fragments have survived geological and political cataclysms to tell the story; and every survival shows evidence that the now Secret Wisdom was once the one fountain head, the ever-flowing perennial source, at which were fed all its streamlets — the later religions of all nations — from the first down to the last. — pp. xx, xxxiv, xliv-xlv
An exhaustive and genuinely critical examination, conducted in a wholly impersonal spirit, of even the remains of ancient times will convince one that these statements are founded on truth and fact; and the conviction grows upon the impartial student that it is a marvel that scholars could have been so blind as to allow the actual existence of the esoteric tradition to escape observation and discovery for so long. What is needed, very evidently, is more intuition and less merely brain-mind analysis of dates and grammar and names and spellings.
Intuition, be it active or relatively inactive, is the source of all human understanding of truth. It lives in the heart of man, in the core of his being; and it is the working of this intuition which gives to him all his highest and best ideas regarding the nature of man and the universe. Doubtless everyone has at some time thought: Is there no truth in the universe that a thinking man can find and understand? Is there in fact nothing but uncertainty and vague surmises and speculations without number, all based upon a mere researching, albeit faithful enough, among natural facts? The answer comes like the "still small voice" saying: There must be, in a universe regulated and ruled by law and consequence, some means of arriving at a fully satisfying explanation of that universe, because it is One, and therefore wholly and throughout consistent with itself. Where then may be found the truth about the universe — some satisfactory explanation of THINGS AS THEY ARE?
There can be but one truth, and if we can find a formulation of that truth in logical, coherent, and consistent form, obviously we then can understand portions of it equal to our capacity of comprehension. It is the esoteric tradition, today called theosophy, which may be proved to be this formulation of truth — formulated in our present age according to the spiritual-intellectual fashions and manners of the time, it is true, but nevertheless conveying the age-old message of wisdom and cosmic reality.
The subjects of which it treats deal with the universe and with mankind as an offspring of that universe. It tells us what man is, what his inner constitution is, how the latter is held together in a coherent unity, whence it comes, what becomes of its various principles and elements when the great liberator, death, frees the imprisoned spirit-soul. Telling us all this, it teaches us likewise how properly to understand men; and, understanding them, this comprehension enables us to go behind the veil of outer appearances and under the surface of the seeming into the realms of reality. It teaches us likewise of the nature of civilizations, and how they arise, what they are based on, and of the working of the energies springing from human hearts and minds which form civilization. It offers, moreover, an explanation of what to the materialist are the unsolvable riddles of life, an explanation entirely based upon that Mother Nature which is the source and background of all our being.
Theosophy is not an invention; it was not discovered; it was not composed by some finely intellectual and spiritual mind. Nor is it a mere syncretistic aggregate of philosophical and religious doctrines, taken piecemeal from the various religions and philosophies of the world. Theosophy is that original formulation of truth from which all the great religions and philosophies of antiquity sprang in their origin.
We aver that this majestic wisdom-religion is as old as thinking man, far older than the so-called enduring hills; because races of thinking men have existed in times so far past that continents have been submerged under the water of the oceans and new lands have arisen to take the places of those which disappeared, and these geologic convulsions were long posterior to the first appearance of homo sapiens on this globe. Geology tells us somewhat of the wondrous story of the rocks and seas; how continents replaced seas and oceans, which in their turn now again roll their waters over what was once vast stretches of plain and mountain — and, theosophy adds, lands which were the habitats of highly civilized races of men.
Indeed, this ancient doctrine, this esoteric system, was delivered to the first thinking human beings on this earth by highly intelligent spiritual entities from superior spheres; and it has been passed down from guardians to guardians thereof, until our own time. Furthermore, portions of this original and majestic system have been given out at various periods of time to various races in various parts of the world by those guardians when humanity stood in need of some new extension and cyclical renewal of spiritual verities.
Who are these guardians of the wisdom-religion? They are those whom we call the Elder Brothers of the human race, and are men in all senses of the word and not excarnate spirits; but they are, relatively speaking, fully evolved or perfected men — men who have, more successfully than we as yet have, run the evolutionary race and are therefore now, in point of spiritual and intellectual grandeur, where we shall be many ages hence.
In each age which needs it — and these needs recur cyclically due to the revolving wheel of life — there comes a new "revelation," a new unveiling with an accompanying spiritual and mental revolution in human minds and hearts, from this great brotherhood composed of these masters of life and wisdom — a mastery gained through the unfolding in the individual of the spiritual and intellectual powers and faculties which are native to all men, but which require bringing forth or unfolding, partly by self-induced efforts in training and partly by teaching given in the initiation chambers.
Human mentality, while differing greatly in individuals due to differences in individual evolution and because each one follows his own path, nevertheless pursues one common course of action, because we are all intimately related as human beings. On account of this fact, our minds do tend, through the natural operations of thinking itself, towards one common end; so that the universal consent of people everywhere to certain fundamental principles, based on nature's workings in the human constitution, is a proof, as far as it goes, that any system of thought comprising fundamental truths, acknowledged by all men, must be a truthful presentation of the elementary workings of nature, so far as the human intellect can understand and transmit these workings into human mental systematization. And those elementary, or indeed more complicated and developed, workings of nature — or what comes to the same thing, those natural principles of universal being — are what we call truth, in other words, things and beings AS THEY ARE IN THEMSELVES.
This body of teachings, kept and reserved for worthy depositaries, yet divulged at cyclical intervals for the common human weal, is the common property of mankind, and is seen always to have been so. Consequently, in all the various great religions and philosophies are to be found fundamental principles which, when subjected to meticulous examination and analysis, are easily discovered to be identic in substance. However, no world religion or philosophy gave out in fullness and in clear and explicit shape or form the entire body of teachings which are at its heart; one religion emphasizes one or more of such fundamental principles; another religion or philosophy will emphasize others, the remaining principles lying in the background and relatively veiled in formulation. For this reason the various religions and philosophies vary in type and characteristics and often, to the unreflecting mind, seem to have little in common, and perhaps to be contradictory the one of others.
Another cause of this variety in shape and appearance is the varying manner in which each such religion or philosophy was originally given or promulgated to the world, the form that each took being best for the period in which it was propagated. Each such religion or philosophy, having its own place and period in time, represents, in its later forms, the various human minds who have developed its doctrines or who have translated it to the world in this or that particular form. These mannerisms of thinking we may discard if we wish, but in the fundamental principles behind every great religion or philosophy, in this universal doctrine, lies the mystery-field of each great religion or philosophy.
From The Esoteric Tradition, ch. 1 (full text of book)
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2000/ January 2001; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)
Back Issues Menu
There is an ever-present yearning in the human heart to respond more faithfully to the grander impulses within and to realize in our actions the ideals toward which we strive. As we approach the coming year, this yearning grows stronger and becomes a resolve to start anew, to take hold of our lives and be more continually aware of opportunities to work consciously for the good of all. At this turning point in the yearly cycle we have a singular chance to look in both directions, to try to understand the reason for lost opportunities and to look to the future with hope and courage. — Ingrid Van Mater