Before we discuss the "modern school" of theosophy — by which is meant the several organizations that have sprung up since 1875 — I should like to lay some further groundwork of thought.
As we look into the history and development of the various religious philosophies of the past, it is interesting to note a common pattern. A Messenger appears — a Christ or a Buddha, a Zoroaster or Krishna — and is welcomed by the few, while his message either goes unnoticed or is denounced as false and dangerous to the status quo. He leaves, and his disciples of that day or of succeeding generations, waking at last to some recognition of his teaching, start to build an organization — the holy words are written down, centers of worship established, sacraments are used as a means of salvation, and the once living message becomes a creed. Future believers, guided mainly by the outer forms, soon disagree among themselves, and in no long time the original nucleus of the "new revelation" splits into fragments.
Typical of human nature, we find on the one hand the ultra-conservatives who cling rigidly to the letter of doctrine, insisting that their interpretation is the one and final authority. On the other hand, and diametrically opposed, are the ultra-liberalists who in their zeal to overthrow every restriction lose all sense of proportion, confuse their values, and often end by seeing black as white and wrong as right. Between the two extremes are those who steadfastly try to follow the "middle way" in their effort to interpret the message and to rediscover, behind the formal and the traditional, the divine motif.
This is nothing strange, for it is manifest in every phase of human experience: in business, in education, in social conduct as well as in national and international affairs. And so it has been with theosophy in its earlier forms, just as it is today with regard to its modern expressions where the lines of divergence have by now become fairly marked. We are speaking here of qualities which cut across all man-made barriers, for in every organization may be found, in varying degree, all three types of adherents. Hopefully there will always be a sufficient number, whether attached to one or another organization or to none, who will endeavor to keep alive a knowledge of the original theosophia or god-wisdom — not by seeking to escape life's hard responsibilities, but by an intelligent and practical application of its philosophy to the growing needs of men.
Question — But how is one to know what is genuine and what is not? I have done considerable reading in all sorts of books. Some of the ideas seem like old friends, even though they're new to me, but I found other things I didn't like at all.
Comment — Unfortunately, there are various interpretations of theosophy being promulgated these days, and it is not a simple matter to discern what is true and what is false. If one is seriously interested in digging out the pure doctrine that inspired the founder of the modern school, he should go directly to the source and familiarize himself with its principles. In this way he will have a basis by which to test any later interpretations.
Question — You say the "pure doctrine" — does that mean theosophy has specific tenets which one must believe? Or can one pick and choose what he likes, and leave the rest?
Comment — In all her writings, H. P. Blavatsky makes it clear that theosophy has absolutely no creed or formula of belief, no set of dogmas to which one must adhere, each individual being entirely free to select what appeals to him. If we are rooted in the same Divine Intelligence that produced the cosmos, we not only have the privilege but are expected to grow and develop in accordance with our own character, not another's. Under no circumstances should we feel bound by the intellectual or moral or even spiritual pressures of anything but our own inner "sense." Whatever we read or hear, in any field of thought, should always pass the test of our own highest judgment. If it rings true to us, we should accept it, for the time being at least, until we see a larger facet of truth. If it does not, we can just cast it aside. We may be rejecting something which later on will prove of essential worth; but if at the moment it does not seem right, either we are not ready for it, or that particular truth will, perhaps, do us more lasting good in the future.
Question — But there must be some definite teachings which belong to theosophy, aren't there? Or is it mainly a kind of philanthropic effort, such as working for better conditions, and that sort of thing?
Comment — No, genuine theosophy is not simply a vague brand of do-good psychology, without relation to man and his pressing need to know who he is and what is his ultimate role on earth. Nevertheless, because an underlying "love of mankind" motivated its re-presentation, it is clearly a "philanthropic" effort — using the word in its pure sense.
Is it then a religion, or perhaps a new kind of philosophy? Actually it is neither and both; in fact, theosophy has been called the mother of all religions and philosophies.
Question — Wouldn't that explain why we find so many points of similarity in the great religions? I remember how struck I was by this when I took a course in comparative religion. At the time I hadn't traveled much and knew very little about other peoples, but the professor we had was a profound student of the Upanishads as well as of the ancient Greek and Roman writings, and more than once he referred to a "golden thread" of wisdom which, he said, could lead us through the maze of the many interpretations.
Comment — There is indeed a "golden thread" of truth, connecting the most archaic forms of belief with the present, and linking the spiritual traditions of every nation and race to that spark of Divine Intelligence that is at the core of every man.
Question — I think I'm getting beyond my depth. I'd like to refer again to Webster, and get these various ideas related to what he said.
Comment — Of course. Part 1 of the definition, you may recall, pertains to theosophy with a small t, as it found outlet in varying ways in preceding centuries. If we paraphrase it now in simpler terms, we can see how universally applicable it is to every religious or philosophic system that has at its heart the theme of Deity as the fountainhead and origin of all beings and things:
theosophia, or knowledge concerning the movements and work-habits of Divinity as it seeks to imbody itself in a universe (and in every portion thereof, inclusive of human beings), such knowledge being achieved either by direct spiritual insight or by study or philosophic reflection, or by a fruitful blend of the mind with the intuition.
Question — I can't imagine any of us reaching that stage of enlightenment in one life. Maybe that is why reincarnation was so popular among many peoples, because they felt it would take more than one life to make the grade.
Comment — None of us is expected to make the grade to this extent in a single lifetime! That would be as absurd as to expect the first-grader immediately to pass the entrance examinations of a university. Nevertheless, as St. John reminded us, within every man is "the Light," and one day we will have earned our own vision of "divine things." In the meantime, we can take courage, for even within the relatively short period of recorded history there have been those great and noble souls who were sufficiently advanced over the rest of us to dare the heights. They had traveled, perhaps for many, many lifetimes, the lonely path of self-discipline, self-mastery, and self-illumination — to suffer, at last, the crucifixion of their earthly nature that the god within might take fuller birth within their souls. Such have been the leaders and guides of mankind, the long line of Saviors and Christs who, on the consummation of their sacred experience, have shared of their "vision" with others, and in so doing have wrought vast changes in the spiritual and psychological destiny of the peoples among whom they lived.
They did not come to reveal a new set of truths, or even to found a new religion. As H. P. Blavatsky says, all of them were "transmitters, not original thinkers. They were the authors of new forms and interpretations, while the truths upon which the latter were based were as old as mankind."
Question — That makes sense to me. And if my logic is sound, all of them would naturally teach the same thing. If they really had experienced their "moment of truth," wouldn't they have contacted the identic divine source?
Comment — Precisely, and that is why when we look into the world religions and the various mystical and philosophic systems we discover that all of them, when pared to their essentials, tell the same story. We sometimes forget that our knowledge of our past racial history is scant, based on a mere five or six thousand years, whereas the traditions of many ancient peoples go back hundreds of millennia — every one of them pointing to an archaic wisdom-religion as the perennial fount of Truth from which all human knowledge has been drawn. So old, its origins cannot be traced, yet its existence is confirmed by the periodic incarnation of Men whose towering spiritual stature made them the inspired leaders of progressive civilizations.
Question — But this wisdom-religion surely wasn't called theosophy way back there, was it?
Comment — No, indeed. Names are completely incidental, for truth takes any and every name, depending upon a number of causes. Different peoples in different cycles call for different types of guidance. At one time we find emphasis on the devotional or religious aspect, as in early Christianity, with the urgent call to strive for "Christ-consciousness" or "mystical union" with the Father within. At another, the philosophic basis of man's many-faceted nature comes in for study, as in Plato's day, or in ancient India and Egypt and among other peoples of the time. Then again, we have eras when science takes the forefront in extensive investigation of natural law. But always, whether it is universally venerated or for a period goes underground, truth is the inheritance of all who qualify.
One more point, if I may, before we take up part 2 of our definition. A few moments ago someone wondered if theosophy included any system of doctrines. If we turn to The Secret Doctrine we will see that it does indeed embrace a systematic exposition of philosophic principles — themselves derived from the wisdom-teaching of antiquity — which principles describe the "birth of worlds and of man" through many rounds of experience. But, as the author repeatedly says, she herself was only a transmitter; she brought nothing new, her task being to cast the searchlight of interest on this treasury of "wisdom" concealed beneath the tangle of mystical and religious lore of past civilizations.
Question — Is this the reason she formed the Theosophical Society, or did she have other goals in mind?
Question — I understood she tried to establish a brotherhood among the various races, but I guess the times were against this.
Comment — In matters of the spirit, we cannot measure success or failure by ordinary standards. Despite the constant threat of global war, the idea of brotherhood has taken hold of the consciousness of peoples everywhere, which in itself is a tremendous advance. While the underlying purpose of the parent society was the sharing of this ancient knowledge concerning the structure and operations of nature, physical and divine, its chief objective was to coalesce into a nucleus those men and women who were dedicated to the accomplishment of the ideal you mention. And as true brotherhood must be universal — without regard to superficial differences of color, race or creed — this could not, of course, be achieved without some bridges of understanding being built among the great variety of peoples in every continent. Therefore, an unbiased study of all religions, philosophies, and sciences, ancient and modern, was encouraged, along with an investigation of the inner constitution of man and his relation to the areas of consciousness, higher and lower, in which he participates.
This is a very broad program and, human nature being what it is, the original objectives have not been attained. Nevertheless, a torch was once more held aloft. It may take centuries before an enlightened fraternity of nations is a reality, yet progress is evident in the growing awareness that not only are all men brothers, but that every religious truth (not dogma) draws its sustenance from one imperishable source.
Now then, let us take a careful look at Webster's second definition. In the first place it is misleading, in that modern theosophy as expounded by H. P. Blavatsky was not intended exclusively to follow "Buddhistic and Brahmanic theories." Even a cursory review of her writings shows that she utilized the traditions and scriptures of all countries in order to illustrate their origin in the One Perennial Wisdom. The sagas and mythology of the Scandinavian Eddas, the Jewish theosophy of the Kabbalah, the teachings and discipline of Pythagoras and Plato, of Ammonias Saccas and the Neoplatonists, as well as the writings of Lao-tzu and Confucius of China, are all discussed along with Christianity, Buddhism and the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita.
Question — How do you account for the use of so many Oriental terms in her books? It seems to me these ideas could have been put in simpler language. Yet even as I say this, I begin to ask myself, for instance, what English word I would use instead of karma!
Comment — That's the point. Some later writers have perhaps gone too far in the use of unfamiliar terminology, which may be advisable if one is writing a technical exposition; but for introductory literature it doesn't seem necessary. There are cases when the use of technical language is essential; science, for example, in all its branches, uses hundreds of technical terms which give to its specialists information at a glance, but which to the layman mean very little.
You mentioned karma. It so happens that when H. P. Blavatsky was writing her books (and the situation holds even today), there wasn't any word in English, or in any of our modern European tongues, able to convey what this one Sanskrit term implies. So when the word karma with its philosophical implications was introduced to the West, it became so indispensable that it was soon adopted into our language, in the same way as have thousands of other foreign terms. Now we could say that karma means just what St. Paul did when he wrote to the Galatians that God is not mocked and that as a man sows he will reap. But look how many words we have used when the one word karma, if properly understood, conveys all that and more.
Question — I can see how some of these terms are very helpful. But what does Webster mean by saying that modern theosophy teaches a kind of "pantheistic evolution"?
Question — When you speak of a person as a pantheist, doesn't that mean he worships many gods rather than believing in one Supreme Being?
Comment — That is one interpretation, but a secondary one only, which doesn't actually convey what the term signifies. Unfortunately we in the West have a habit of looking down our noses at any concept that does not immediately dovetail with our own ideas. The word itself is also from the Greek — pan + theos, or "all divine" — and originally meant that all has sprung forth from Deity. For so many centuries, however, we have placed God outside and apart from ourselves, that any belief that suggests Divinity as the source of all beings and things is said to "smack of pantheism." Hence it is regarded with disfavor because it is wrongly understood to mean that everything is God — and what blasphemy to say that a stone or a horse, or even a human being is God!
But if by the phrase "pantheistic evolution" we conceive an evolution based on the premise that every point in space — which comprises every inhabitant from atom to star in our solar system and in the myriads of solar systems that make up the Milky Way and beyond — is an expression of Deity because housing an aspect of it, then, as I understand it, theosophy all through the centuries has endorsed this type of "pantheism." And this would naturally include the corollary idea that all such living beings, no matter what their evolutionary status, are constantly renewing themselves — using one vehicle or body after another in order that the god-spark within, which animates its series of vehicles, may grow and evolve and gain enrichment through this experience. With the human kingdom, the method of this cyclic return is called reincarnation, which means that the human soul enters and informs a human body.
Question — I'm so glad to hear you say this because the subject of reincarnation is the main thing that appealed to me in the books I've read. It may be because it has been a conviction with me since childhood when a very dear friend of my father, a minister by the way, told me about it. I was seven or eight, and one Sunday after dinner he took me for a walk along the river. It was autumn and the trees were all flame and gold. He said he wanted me to remember always how beautiful they were just before they would seem to die; only that they didn't really die, but just lost their leaves for a while so they could rest and grow fresh ones in the spring. Perhaps he might not have made so deep an impression except that a few weeks later he died suddenly. For a while I was heartbroken, and then his words came to me as a wonderful comfort, and ever since I have felt a growing certainty that death cannot put an end to love and sympathy and all those intangibles that are so real a part of human life.
Comment — I have long felt that if this one doctrine of the soul's rebirth were restored to Christian teaching where it was once included, it would exert a powerful influence on Western psychology and by so much on world relationships. If reincarnation were linked in a positive way with its companion teaching of karma, men and women everywhere would realize they were gods in essence, whose future destiny was theirs to make and therefore bright with promise, as nothing would be impossible of attainment.
It could be that in this twentieth century these archaic truths will have another opportunity to override the literalists as well as the fantasy-mongers. It may be called the esoteric philosophy of the past, but it will be more than that. It will be divinity's inspiration to man when he first became man, which inspiration is still lying dormant in the breast of every human being. That is what Jesus referred to when he said: "Before Abraham was, I am"; and what the Psalmist had in mind when he sang: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . Thou art with me."