I strongly advise you to give up all yoga practices, which in almost all cases have disastrous results. . . . You have learnt, to a certain degree, the power of concentration, and the greatest help will now come to you from concentration upon the Higher Self, and aspiration toward the Higher Self. Also if you will take some subject or sentence from the Bhagavat-Gita, and concentrate your mind upon that and meditate upon it, you will find much good result from it, and there is no danger in such concentration. . . .
What then is the panacea finally, the royal talisman? It is Duty, Selfless-ness. Duty persistently followed is the highest yoga, and is better than . . . any other thing. If you can do no more than duty it will bring you to the goal. — William Q. Judge
We are frequently asked by inquirers if Theosophy teaches Oriental methods of Yoga, or whether it recommends them to seekers for spiritual wisdom. This is not an unnatural question because it is well known that the Theosophical Society was established under the direction of certain Oriental Masters of Wisdom, Compassion, and Peace. While we may say at once that the yoga-methods usually known by that name in the West have no place in the work or teaching of the Theosophical Society, the subject is sufficiently important to invite our consideration, even if only to clear up possible misunderstandings. Theosophy, indeed, has a system of spiritual development. In fact, it is the only system that is suitable for all people of whatever race or shade of opinion. If anyone chooses to call it 'yoga' it must be understood that it does not resemble what is commonly thought of over here when the word 'yoga' is spoken.
The Masters who founded the Theosophical Society are perfectly familiar with the ordinary physical and psychological yoga, but they have never permitted its introduction into the activities of the Society; what is called 'sitting for yoga' has always been rigorously discountenanced, and for good reasons. There are, however, perfectly safe and sane methods of studying ourselves and learning much about our inner consciousness, which are open to anyone who reads the sacred books of the East, including, we may say, the New Testament. Though sometimes the word 'yoga' is connected with these studies they must not be confused with the yoga just mentioned.
The lower form of yoga, best known in the West, is the yoga of bodily control or Hatha-yoga. According to the practitioners of Hatha-yoga, long and arduous concentration on control of the body and certain of its forces, which are unknown to Western science, is necessary before even mental training can begin, and actually with many so-called yogis mental purification is not their chief ambition. While this self-centered kind of yoga may develop willpower, it begins at the wrong end and strengthens the egotism of personal acquisition which is already lively enough. Hatha-yoga tries to develop astral sight and other changes in brain-consciousness by forcibly controlling the vibrations of matter. This is injurious to the working of the higher spiritual centers of the brain because of the strain upon the comparatively intractable matter of the body, and it also has other serious dangers.
Theosophy begins with moral and spiritual training and never loses sight of it. This cannot be said of Hatha-yoga, which handles the physical vehicle in order to acquire power, and not to attain the purification of the mind and emotions for the sake of humanity. It forces the control of respiration, an exercise which arouses strange forces of menacing potency. Many records are available of cases where dabbling with breath-control produced disastrous consequences, followed too late by bitter regret for the disregard of friendly warnings. Such unhappy reactions arise from ignorant and selfish efforts to snatch forbidden powers — forbidden to the normal human being in the present phase of evolution — before their development is safe and in natural order. Criticisms of the much advertised 'yoga-breathing' do not, of course, refer to the perfectly proper methods pursued in the West in athletic training or under medical advice.
When the right time comes for the use of the inner powers by a few advanced souls — a very few at present because of the prevailing egotism, the enemy of man — they gradually develop and are seen to be a perfectly natural expression of the god within. Theosophical history contains examples of this legitimate form of evolution. One case was that of a spiritually and intellectually advanced Hindu lad who came to Madame Blavatsky's assistance more than fifty years ago, when she was in India bringing out her first journal under great difficulties, chiefly from the lack of qualified helpers. He abandoned his Brahmanical, proud, and exclusive caste, and brilliant worldly prospects, to devote himself to hard work for Theosophy, whose immense importance to his country and to the world he deeply realized. He utterly repudiated the allurements of yoga, knowing that he had found an infinitely higher path to truth and wisdom, the path of pure devotion to the betterment of humanity. His sincerity quickly attracted the notice of the Masters of Wisdom, Compassion, and Peace, and they saw fit to give him personal attention. Gradually, and without straining, he found unknown capacities and powers naturally awakening and becoming available for the greater responsibilities and opportunities for service that soon came to him. The career of Damodar K. Mavalankar is honored by all Theosophists as a shining example of true discipleship and its triumphant fulfilment. In his case, as in that of all advanced souls who have killed out egotism and transmuted desire into spiritual energy, the higher powers he acquired were perfectly normal; and as they had never been coveted or sought for their own sake, so they were never displayed as inducements to others.
A few words more about Hatha-yoga are necessary because there is so much misunderstanding about yoga in general, and there are so many cunning sirens tempting the unwary with their alluring songs. The word yoga attracts the ill-informed by the wide advertising it gets through paid advertisements and the promise of acquiring psychic powers, 'success' in life, and so forth. Many clairvoyants, more or less genuine, practise under the name of yogi, but should be regarded as plain fortune-tellers. For one serious and valuable book on the spiritual yoga-philosophy of the Orient, dozens are produced which pander to an unhealthy curiosity about yoga, the authors seeming utterly careless as to whether the practices they recommend are dangerous or not — possibly being ignorant themselves in many cases — so long as they can produce a salable book. Perhaps the worst publications are the correspondence courses of so-called 'Secret Lessons' which promise adeptship, or, at least, mystic knowledge and the power of getting what you want at twenty-five dollars up! Some promise initiation for two dollars — a real bargain!
If yoga meant nothing but a low-grade psychism, a common dollar-philosophy, or a few hints on hypnotism for control of others; or if it only suggested Hindus lying on spikes or performing the mango-trick for the benefit of tourists (and incidentally for their own pockets) there would be no reason for these remarks, for everyone knows that Theosophy is worlds away from such quackery.
There is, however, another aspect of yoga, not spurious or fraudulent, and not professing to be a spiritual or even an ethical system, but a purely scientific method of artificially awakening certain dormant psychological faculties unknown to Western science. It is practised by certain Tibetan lamas of less spiritual orders, and by other yogis. It has, of course, no place in the program of the Theosophical Movement, but it calls for a little attention.
In the West, until lately, little or no notice was taken of Oriental psychology, or perhaps more properly, psychoanalysis, but now a few distinguished scholars, such as Dr. Carl Jung, are beginning to realize that Western psychology is a mere infant in comparison with that of the hoary East, especially in regard to the complex nature of man. This is perhaps largely due to the strange disregard of Reincarnation, without which no understanding of our true nature is possible. The discoveries of Oriental science were not made by the study of dreams in the clinic of the psychoanalyst, or through the investigation of insanity, but by the direct observation of the consciousness of the observer himself, a more profitable though more difficult method. Unfortunately, many side-issues on the line of yoga have developed from these discoveries which are an unprofitable and often highly dangerous field of investigation for the ordinary inquirer, however scientific and well-prepared in Western psychology he may be. He little suspects the strain on the moral as well as the mental qualities that the untrained and self-sufficient would have to stand. Those so-called 'yogas' are no less unprofitable to those who are seeking spiritual knowledge and have no time to waste. Even an apparently harmless yoga-system, if such be known, leads into a blind alley, if not worse.
Some of the Hindu and Lamaistic systems, while claiming to be efficient methods of getting behind the outer veil of Nature, are no more spiritual than, say, chemistry, but are strictly scientific, and, like chemistry, are capable of being employed for the most abominable purposes. Mme Alexandra David-Neel, the eminent French scholar and leading authority on Tibetan Yoga, and also other qualified observers, describe many cases where revenge, vanity, vulgar ambition, and hatred, were the motives that inspired the practitioners or would-be practitioners of scientific yoga. Even the better class of yoga (as well as Hatha-yoga) is associated in the public mind with notions of Hindu beggars, cross-legged and ash-smeared, with fire-walking, snake-charming, and so forth. It is a well-known fact that a large proportion of Eastern yogis — not only Hatha-yogis — have not only renounced the vanities of this world but have ceased to take any interest in the general welfare of humanity so completely that it would seem that the unhappy world may go to the devil its own way for all they care. All their time is devoted to their own salvation. This line of conduct is, of course, not universally followed, and we must remember that it is not unknown in Christian countries. It always defeats its own ends.
Such a self-centered attitude is the very last thing that a yoga of a Theosophical kind would inspire in anyone. A true yoga would mean a sympathetic and thorough understanding of human nature and human needs. It would mean the wise application of this knowledge to the service of humanity by one who has attained what is sometimes called Raja-yoga, the kingly union with man's inner god. An Orientalist has said, "Buddhism is fundamentally a system of practically applied yoga." If so, true yoga means the study and practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, the magnificent moral and spiritual teaching of the Buddha, in which devotion to the higher interests of humanity is the first duty, and concentration on one's own petty personality the worst folly. For the Buddha himself abandoned the peaceful solitudes to answer the challenge of suffering mankind, as soon as he obtained Enlightenment.
Egotism is the greatest hindrance to spiritual progress, and when the commoner forms of ambition or appetite are overpassed, more subtil desires appear, such as the craving for exclusive and confidential information, or personal power in unusual directions. Anxiety to possess psychic powers for personal gratification is a serious bar to progress, even though disguised under specious pretexts. Our motives are not always so pure as we like to fancy, and the lower selfish part of our complex natures is exceedingly cunning in getting its own way. We have made personal acquisitiveness, personal desire, the mainspring of action, and we know the result. We reap the harvest we have sown. The yoga that the world is needing is one that makes altruism, love for others, self-sacrifice, a habit.
We are sometimes asked, Did not Madame Blavatsky, the founder of your Society, go to India to study yoga? No, she did not go to India in 1878, after establishing the Theosophical Society in America, to learn anything from Oriental yogis. She went to take the yoga of Universal Brotherhood to the East, which sorely needed it, in spite of all its thousands of yogis. She went, under the direction of the Masters of Wisdom, who are international and without partiality, to arouse India from its spiritual slumber, to answer the call of many who hungered for a higher interpretation of the ancient Hindu scriptures, the allegories of which had been perverted into superstitious dogmas. Many leading societies of native Sanskrit scholars welcomed her to their fellowship, and the strange sight was seen of proud Brahmanas, exclusive and self-sufficient to a degree, recognising her as a teacher, she, a foreigner, an 'outcaste,' and — a woman! She was publicly thanked by them on many occasions and honored by many tributes. One of these, tendered by more than three hundred Hindu students at a college at Madras, begins: "We are conscious that we are giving but a feeble expression to the debt of endless gratitude which India lies under to you. . . ." That was more than fifty years ago, but India and Ceylon have not forgotten her and what she did to arouse the dormant spirituality there.
William Q. Judge wrote that modern India was not to be regarded as a source of spirituality. He said:
It is not the desire of the Brotherhood that those members of the Theosophical movement who have, under their rights, taken up a belief in the messengers and the message should become pilgrims to India. To arouse that thought was not the work nor the wish of H. P. B. Nor is it the desire of the Lodge to have members think that Eastern methods are to be followed, Eastern habits adopted, or the present East made the model or the goal. The West has its own duty, its own life and development.
Quite recently a brilliant journalistic writer and student of the occult searched India from North to South to find wisdom. He found many alleged yogis, mostly self-seekers or frauds who have discredited the name of yogi among the younger generation of Hindus and the educated classes; he found a few real psychics or magicians of a low order; and a very few sincerely thoughtful men who were not 'showing off' in any way. The best one of these did not recommend yoga-practices, but gave good advice on self-control as the path to higher knowledge. So far as it went, this was good Theosophy — which the journalist could have found at home, by the way, in Madame Blavatsky's little book of devotion, The Voice of the Silence, in Dr. de Purucker's Golden Precepts of Esotericism, or elsewhere in Theosophical literature, where the path of discipleship is plainly set forth in a way that is equally suitable for all peoples, Oriental or Occidental. Further, though this researcher heard much of concentration, he found no emphasis laid on that unselfish, beneficent concentration which is the fundamental teaching of the true Masters — concentration on the spread of Universal Brotherhood among the nations of the world.
When the Hindu sage, previously mentioned, was asked by the journalist how to make spiritual progress, he replied:
There is only one thing to be done. Look within yourself. Do this in the right way and you shall find the answer to all your problems. You have to ask yourself, Who am I? Know the real Self, and then the truth will shine forth within your heart like sunshine. The mind will become untroubled and real happiness will flood it, for happiness and the true self are identical.
That is excellent Theosophy, so far as it goes. But without further explanation it could easily be misinterpreted to mean sitting in solitary indifference and looking at a spot on the wall. "Do this in the right way," he said — but what is the right way? Why did he not boldly proclaim the truth that the only right way to bring the sunshine into the heart is to broaden our sympathies by active service to a world which needs it badly?
In Theosophy we have the true spiritual yoga which saves us from our lower selves by leading us out of egotistical concentration on personal concerns into a larger life. There is no need to struggle for initiation by force; it is prepared for by the right use of the opportunities of daily life. This requires a sympathetic imagination which can understand the sufferings as well as the joys of others, and which knows how to help wisely. How shall we develop this godlike power? All the Great Teachers have given us the true method. The present Leader of the Theosophical Society has condensed it into a few words: "Learn to love. Learn to forgive." Our duty is to send this, and all that it implies, ringing round the world. If we make this principle the basis of our lives — a living power — we cannot wander from the true path of progress, and in due time intuition and all the higher psychic powers we need will develop within us because we can be trusted not to misuse them.
We have to fight our own battles, for it is said: "the adept becomes, he is not made." But we can get help; we can find a Teacher whose advice will prevent us from wandering from the straight path if we are willing to take it wholeheartedly, one who can hasten our progress by bringing our hidden weaknesses to our attention. This is not always pleasant, for the real Teacher does not humor the egotism of anyone and the truth about one's lower nature is usually anything but flattering when honestly faced. On the other hand, constant practice in self-discipline gradually reveals the fact that the egotistical side is only the shadow of the true man, and that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by putting an end to its tyranny.
At a critical epoch, when the old medieval theology was breaking up and a mechanistic science was threatening to destroy all vestiges of spirituality in the West (and it very nearly did so), the Masters of Wisdom established the Theosophical Society, in order, as was stated, "to keep alive in man his spiritual intuitions." They called together a few devoted souls and gave them the opportunity to bring hope and light to thousands. But no personal reward was offered, such as immediate intercourse with the Mahatmans, psychic powers, perfect physical health or prosperity — nothing but the deep satisfaction that comes from unselfish work in promoting a genuine Universal Brotherhood and all the blessings that it implies. In Theosophy the beginning of wisdom is self-forgetfulness. H. P. Blavatsky and her successors have been uncompromising in their warfare; they gave no quarter to the lower selfish desires. She proclaimed: "To live to benefit mankind is the first step," and "Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?" Do not make any mistake. Membership and progress in the Theosophical Movement means just that, and if one has no response in the heart to that appeal, no corresponding throb of joy at hearing of this unique opportunity to do something of real value, however little at first, membership in the Theosophical Society will give meager satisfaction.
In a series of communications made many years ago, the great Initiates who are behind the Theosophical Movement broke their traditional silence and gave out teachings about man and Nature that were hitherto unknown. They also gave an outline of their system of training for discipleship which is applicable to all, whether in the East or the West. In a few sentences written by H. P. Blavatsky we find this briefly expressed:
To merit the honorable title of Theosophist one must be an altruist above all. The duty of every Theosophist is certainly to help others to carry their burden. The Theosophist must himself be a center of spiritual action. Self-sacrifice is the highest standard of Theosophy.
Speaking of the way to bring this about, she says:
And what may be the duty of a Theosophist to himself? To control and conquer, through the Higher, the lower self. To purify himself inwardly and morally; to fear no one, and nought, save the tribunal of his own conscience.
One of the Mahatmans, in correcting the mistaken notion of a new member of the Theosophical Society, who asked for yoga-methods by which to get psychic powers, explained that the dynamic energy which gives the Movement strength to stand any shock is not the craving for personal advantages but:
— Love, an Immense Love for humanity — as a Whole! For it is "Humanity" which is the great Orphan, the only disinherited one upon this earth, my friend. And it is the duty of every man who is capable of an unselfish impulse, to do something, however little, for its welfare. — K. H. in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, p. 52
Another (and a greater Master) confirmed this in these words:
It is not the individual determined purpose of attaining [for] oneself Nirvana (the culmination of all knowledge and absolute wisdom) which is after all only an exalted and glorious selfishness — but the self-sacrificing pursuit of the best means to lead in the right path our neighbor, to cause as many of our fellow-creatures as we possibly can to benefit by it, which constitutes the true Theosophist.
The same high Initiate added that the Masters would rather see the Theosophical Society perish "than become no better than an academy of magic or a hall of occultism," and in spite of all the lures of various side-issues it has remained faithful to its trust, thanks largely to the determination and unshaken loyalty to its original principles of H. P. Blavatsky, and those who followed her example.
Doing something for others, unselfish work to raise the spiritual standard of the world is, then, the true yoga, the yoga of Theosophy. The world is our home. It needs our help, and we shall not get away from it quickly. The urgent question for all who think seriously is: Am I becoming more useful, more capable of giving the help that is demanded of me?