Dangers of Dogmatism

By Lo Guest

Dogma has been defined as "an arrogant declaration of opinion" (Concise Oxford Dictionary). Surely nothing could be further from theosophy, which represents the process of independent searching for truth and wisdom. The main object of The Theosophical Society is to work for universal brotherhood, with compassion, tolerance, and love. To be successful in this quest involves striving to understand that mysterious "something" which is greater than we are, yet part of us, for this mystery is the all-pervading, unifying factor that makes us all brothers.

To express the identity of the many with the One, the ancient Indian Upanishads use the phrase tat tvam asi, meaning "That art thou." These few words recognize that the mystery we call God is within us, is our true Self, the spark that never dies, and that this spark is part of the atman or universal life-force pervading everything in the cosmos. Because this oneness resides at the heart of all things, universal brotherhood is a fact in nature and not just a pile of empty words.

Many of us may be reluctant to acknowledge that god-essence resides within us, rather than outside of us in the form of some omnipotent and vengeful God. If god-essence indeed resides within our heart of hearts, then we are responsible for our own actions. This can be a hard fact to acknowledge. Suddenly we can no longer say: "My God! What have you done to me?" when something goes wrong. By and large, Western traditions have not prepared us to look within ourselves to know and understand the mystery of the world, nor have they prepared us for the reality that we ourselves must seek truth by our own efforts.

To seek for truth by our own efforts, we cannot be bound by any dogma. Dogma is imposed on us by others, denies us our birthright of thinking for ourselves, and therefore stunts our spiritual growth. Theosophy acknowledges that everything in the universe — as well as all other universes which we are gradually getting to know, including the smallest atom — is pervaded by one life force. As poet and mystic William Blake put it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Nobody was more aware of the danger of dogmatism than the principal founder of the Theosophical Society, H. P. Blavatsky. In the conclusion of The Key to Theosophy, she answers a question about the future of theosophy and how much knowledge theosophical students would need to carry it on in the original spirit. She said: "I do not refer to technical knowledge of the esoteric doctrine, though that is most important; I spoke rather of the great need which our successors in the guidance of the Society will have of unbiased and clear judgment. Every such attempt as the Theosophical Society has hitherto ended in failure; because, sooner or later, it has degenerated into a sect, set up hard-and-fast dogmas of its own, and so lost by imperceptible degrees that vitality which living truth alone can impart."

The last two verses of the creation hymn from the Rig-Veda open up the quest for truth inherent in every human being. This hymn begins very similarly to the biblical Genesis, until the last two verses which ask, "Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? The one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows — or perhaps he does not know."

There will come a day when we will know the truths of nature through first-hand experience. But that day will come only by our own self-directed efforts to discover truth unrestricted by the chains of dogma.

 (From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)


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Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity, might win all these diligences to join, and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth, could we but forego this prelatical tradition of crowding free consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men. Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. The Temple of Janus with his two controversial faces might now not unsignificantly be set open. And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. — John Milton