Theosophy Briefly Defined
The writer desires to express his appreciation of the privilege of presenting a few Theosophical thoughts to this group of students.
Perhaps some among you are more or less familiar with Theosophy or some of its particular teachings and doctrines, which, in the aggregate, comprise a co-ordinated, symmetrical, and well-balanced philosophy of life for those who have investigated its teachings in the spirit of something more than purely intellectual interest. Its vast range ignores no department of truth — physical, intellectual, or spiritual — a fact which gives it a unique place in the world of religious thought. It has scientific values dealing with the physical aspect of Nature — its external carpentry, so to speak. Any teaching or theory, whether it be of a religious or scientific nature, which ignores the opposite or complementary aspect of Nature, is but a partial truth at best, and all too often a grievous and misleading error.
Theosophy has philosophical values to enrich the expanding intellectual faculties, values by which spiritual truth and scientific fact may be reconciled. The acceptance of any religious or theological belief which demands that we throw intelligence and reason to the winds has a vulnerable spot in it somewhere, and will not survive the test of time and experience. The power of intellection and reason is our emotional counterbalance, our safeguard against walking blindly into error and the misconceptions which have misled so many in the past.
But more far-reaching in many ways are the spiritual truths which Theosophy has to offer to satisfy the nobler aspirations and spiritual longings of man's divine nature, the Inner Self, and to set his feet firmly on the pathway of spiritual self-enlightenment, leading him, step by step, beyond the portals of the lower personality into a more intimate relationship with that enduring Self of which the personality is but a distorted and feeble reflexion. No religion, philosophy, or science, whatever claims it may make, can do more than that, for all truth, knowledge, and wisdom are the eternal treasures of man's divine nature. There is no agency or power, human or divine, outside of man that can carry him to the goal of perfection, happiness and peace. As a Great Teacher once stated it in the picturesque language of his day: "The kingdom of God is within you," a profound occult truth of Nature which seems to have been all but forgotten in our age of external groping for spiritual values. Perhaps if this truth had been accepted as literally as have some other teachings, the great mass of mankind would not be wandering in the fog of doubt and despair today with a chronic and aggravated case of spiritual blind staggers, trying to thumb its way to an unknown destination.
Now as Theosophists we do not say to you as is sometimes done: "Here is Theosophy, a wonderful new religion. It teaches thus and so. Just accept and believe it and you will be a Theosophist. Don't take the trouble to look any further, for you will have the last word of Divine Wisdom — there isn't any more."
But what we do say is this: "Here are some very ancient teachings that have stood the test of time, and have been found very helpful in meeting the problems and difficulties of life. They provide a new viewpoint and outlook upon life, and will enable you to view and weigh its experiences in a new light, for they will help you to find yourself. They will answer many questions which no other system attempts to explain, for they are based upon the laws of Universal Nature. Consider and weigh them, but do not accept them on anyone's say-so or upon any supposed authority; be guided by your own intuitions, for that is the only way you can eventually arrive at truth. These teachings, which in our present age are called Theosophy, are nothing new, but are as old as thinking man. They are not presented as a "divine revelation" in any sense, suddenly thrust upon some personality from "on high" but have been known and taught in all ages, and from them have sprung, at various times in the world's history, the great religious movements and philosophical schools of thought. When these impulses have expended themselves and the original teachings have been corrupted by human misunderstanding and the passing of time, they have been given anew to the world by the Great Teachers and Elder Brothers of the race. In the early centuries of our present era they were promulgated under the name of Christian Gnosticism, and likewise were imbodied and incorporated under the name of the Hebrew Kabbalah in still earlier times. In ancient Greece they were taught under the guise of "The Mysteries" for thousands of years until the degeneration and final closing of the Mystery Schools, while in ancient Hindusthan they were known as Atma-Vidya. Beneath the ritualism and external forms of every religion you will find some remaining traces of them, but invariably distorted.
This accounts for the fact that there are so many similarities in the various religions of the world which are but the results of Theosophical impulses that have been inaugurated at divers times during the history of mankind. Theosophy encourages the study of comparative religions; it reveals that there must have been, of necessity, a parent doctrine from which all have sprung.
Reincarnation an Early Christian Teaching
In these days of world upheaval and readjustment — a storm leaving in its wake an army of countless men with broken spirits, and many others filled with doubts and fears — it is something to have a philosophy of life (call it a religion if you wish, although it is something more than that) that reveals a universal and symmetrical plan of Life beyond the shambles of human events and our external, disordered lives; that helps us to retain our faith in the external fitness of things and in our fellow man; and that reveals a far nobler destiny for mankind than the present picture warrants.
Whenever men have been unable to explain the ways of Universal Nature and the tragedies of human experience, they invariably have attributed them to one of two causes: either to the "will of God," or to blind, fortuitous "chance." Thinking people no longer will accept these hackneyed and threadbare "explanations" which are worse than none at all, for they not only fail to explain, but instil and encourage a fatalistic concept of life that leaves our destiny wholly and completely in the hands of external agencies over which we have no control. If it is the "will of God," to what higher court can we appeal, or why should we even dare to presume to do so? If it is "chance," obviously, there is nothing we can do about it.
Frankly, Theosophists have little patience with any philosophy of life, whether it be of a religious or of a scientific nature, which makes of man a "worm in the dust," devoid of the divine and spiritual attributes and intellectual capacities by which alone he can raise himself above the mud and mire of his own making. The occidental world, particularly western religion, could well afford to take a page or two from the wisdom of the East. If the doctrine of Reincarnation, and its complementary teaching Karman, or the principle of action and reaction in Universal Nature — if these were better understood, in all probability we should have quite a different picture. There would be at least a few less human souls blindly butting their heads against the wailing wall of self-pity and despair, and blaming the gods of chance for the circumstances of their lives.
Reincarnation and Karman are the only teachings which explain with any degree of logic and reason the apparent inequalities and injustices of life. They are among the oldest religious teachings in the world, and have been handed down from the dim past from age to age. They are confined to no particular creed or sect, country or nation, age or civilization, and can be found, in one form or another, in every religion in the world. Let us for example, turn to the Christian religion, one with which we are all more or less familiar — particularly in its external aspects.
When the disciples asked Jesus, as is related in the New Testament, "Who did sin, this man or his parents that he was born blind?" it is quite apparent that they took the truth of Reincarnation for granted, for how could a man have sinned to have been born blind, if not in a previous life? Jesus also stated that John the Baptist was the former Elias who was to come.
Reincarnation was the universal belief not only of the oriental peoples of the far East, but likewise those of the Mediterranean civilization at the beginning of the Christian era, and it was only in after centuries, the sixth of our present era to be exact, that the last traces of it were obliterated from the intellectual and religious thought of Europe. There is undeniable evidence in the extant writings of at least one of the early Christian fathers that Reincarnation and "pre-existence of souls" was openly believed and taught to some extent among the early Christian sects before that religion became what might be called an "organized" body or system. It was not until the sixth century that Christian doctrines, after much sifting and rearranging, took the form of a definite, and what since has been considered "authoritative," theology.
Among the early Christian teachers who exercised no little influence over the thought of his day was Origen, the celebrated exponent of Alexandrian philosophical Christianity, which, in all probability, presented the most scholarly aspect of the Christian teachings.
In his work On First Principles he stated: Everyone, accordingly, of those who descend to the earth is, according to his deserts, or agreeably to the position which he occupied there, ordained to be born in this world, in a different country, or among a different nation, or in a different mode of life, or surrounded by infirmities of a different kind, or to be descended from religious parents, or parents who are not religious; so that it may sometimes happen that an Israelite descends among the Scythians, and a poor Egyptian is brought down to Judea.
Here is not only a definite and clear-cut statement of the doctrine of Reincarnation, but of Karman as well. In fact, these ideas prevailed so universally among the early Christians that it was found necessary to convene a special Church Council to suppress them, and about the year 530, the Council of Constantinople, in a final effort to obliterate the remaining traces of theosophical Christianity, pronounced its anathema against the teachings of Origen and the "pre-existence of souls."
A "One-Way" Immortality
In its stead was substituted a purely theological concept which would not embarrass certain other theological doctrines that then were beginning to take definite form and finding their way into Christian teachings. Immortality, this new teaching said, concerns the future only, and not the past. Now it is quite obvious that many other erroneous doctrines were bound to originate from such a teaching.
Immortality was pictured as something with a beginning, but without an end. This, we state, is nothing short of a philosophical absurdity, and can no more be than you can hold in your hand a stick or a rope which has but one end. Anything which is conditioned to the extent that it has a beginning, must, of its very nature in the eternal fitness of things and according to all known laws of logic and reason, have an end, and hence there is nothing immortal about it. It would be just as logical to say that time once had a beginning, but will never end, or that space begins at a given point and extends indefinitely and without end into boundless infinitude.
If man is immortal at all, that immortality, Theosophy states, must extend into the past as well as into the future. In every realm of Nature we see the law of repetitive cycles of activity and rest in ceaseless operation. Life and death, night and day, summer and winter, work and sleep, in the very act of our breathing, and in the periodical recurrence of sun-spots — it is to be found everywhere. Are we to assume that man is an exception to a law or process of Nature which is so universal; that he lives but one short earth-life and then vanishes from the scene of his half-finished activities for ever? Who can learn all the lessons of life in the span of a few brief and fleeting years? If any one thinks he can, it is all the more evident that he still has much to learn. Is there any evidence in the world today that man, individually and collectively, has attained such a high degree of perfection that he needs no further experience and discipline?
If we consider life from the viewpoint of one short span, it has little rime or reason. Why should one man be born a genius, a Beethoven, a Shakespeare, a Caruso, an Edison, or an Einstein, while another is born a coal-miner with but enough intelligence and creative genius to wield a pick in the bowels of the earth. Simply because genius is the accumulated results of efforts made along some particular line of endeavor over a period of several incarnations. You often will find that such men have deficiencies elsewhere in their characters; that their development is not well rounded. These are things which will have to be corrected in future lives, and these egos like all others will be born into the circumstances of life where this can best be accomplished. Mother Nature is a stern schoolmistress. She has no favored pupils. Whatever our position or circumstances of life may be, we are in the class where we belong, where we have put ourselves, by our own efforts, or the lack of them, in ages past.
It should be obvious that we sometimes set into motion certain causes which are unable to produce their final effects and a balance of justice in one lifetime. We see those who wrong others and who apparently never are brought to justice. We see those who live in idle luxury, who contribute nothing to the spiritual, intellectual, or even material welfare of the world, but who are bounteously provided with all the blessings of life, so called. On the other hand there are those who live nobly, who never do injury to others, but spend their entire lives in self-sacrificing labor for the comfort and welfare of others, and who have trouble until the end of their days. How is it to be explained? Well, in our grandfathers" day we should have been told — and possibly there are some who still explain it that way — that all of these things would be settled in another world beyond. Those who lived rightly would receive their reward and recompense in heaven, and the other kind would receive their punishment in hell throughout eternity, which, by the way, is a very long time. The fact remains, however, that the causes were generated in this world — not in the next. The karmic seeds of destiny were sown here, and will come to fruition where they were planted when the appropriate conditions arrive. If a farmer plants wheat in one field, he does not harvest it in another on the opposite side of his farm. The laws of Nature are not that fortuitous and haphazard.
Reincarnation Not Transmigration
There are those who do not like the idea of Reincarnation because they do not understand it, but confuse it with Transmigration, another teaching entirely. They say they do not want to be reborn as a cab-horse, an Alaskan seal, a New Jersey mosquito, or what-not. This is no objection to Reincarnation at all, but to their own misconception of it. Perhaps you psychologists can explain why otherwise intelligent people will jump at such absurd conclusions without investigation and then proceed to build them up into crystallized opinions and beliefs.
Now Reincarnation and Transmigration refer to two separate and distinct operations of Nature. The human Ego never imbodies in a beast, nor has Theosophy ever taught such a spiritual and psychological absurdity. There may be certain oriental sects which teach and believe warped and twisted concepts of Reincarnation just as there are certain occidental sects who have perverted ideas of Christianity, but you will never find such rubbish in Theosophy.
The human Ego could not incarnate in a beast body for the simple reason that the latter does not possess an intermediate vehicle or psychological apparatus highly enough evolved, or sensitively enough attuned to receive the human Ego which is ages ahead of the beast in evolution. Such a freak of nature could no more eventuate than it would be possible to instil the theory of Einstein into the brain and understanding of an anthropoid ape, for the capacity to receive it is not there. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the body of man, and that of a beast. Both are composed of the same identical kind of atoms borrowed from the workshop of nature for a brief period. The vast gulf between the human and beast kingdoms lies in the inner capacities, in the psychological, intellectual, intuitional, spiritual, and divine natures of the entities. It has taken the great virgin Mother Nature age upon age to build up the marvelously adjusted intermediate nature of man — the human soul — which no beast possesses. It will not be until future ages, in the next planetary round of world evolution that the more advanced entities of the beast kingdom which trail behind the human family in the long cosmic pilgrimage of evolution, will have evolved a psycho-mental apparatus capable of receiving the divine fire of intelligence, self-consciousness, and free will. Man, in the meantime, and after many incarnations will have evolved to a still higher state in the scale of evolution. Faculties which now are dormant and unknown to western science will slowly evolve and take their places with the others we already have developed. Intuition, of which we have but flashes at present, will function as easily as does our eyesight or sense of taste and smell. Man is slowly working upward in the scale of evolution, not downward, and if anyone fears a zoological future, it only proves there is room for Theosophical enlightenment.
Now what is transmigration? Transmigration concerns the atoms of the physical vehicle, and not the human, reincarnating Ego. When the Ego discards and leaves behind it the worn-out physical body much in the manner that we discard an old garment no longer capable of useful service, the process of disintegration immediately begins taking place. The individual atoms of the physical shell, no longer held in cohesion by the presence of the Ego, return to the workshop of Nature and go about their respective tasks. These tiny lives have a consciousness of their own, appropriate to their position in the scale of life, and there is no such thing as "dead matter," as a materialistic science once tried to make us believe. That theory was also a philosophical absurdity, and resulted from the failure of scientists to recognise the spiritual aspect of nature.
These tiny lives, as before stated, have a consciousness of their own, and carry the imprint and impression left upon them by the recent life of the now excarnated human entity. They automatically are drawn by psycho-magnetic attraction to the departments of nature and to other entities where these characteristics can best find expression.
If the past life of the man has been a vicious and brutal one, they will find their natural habitat in a beast of like nature, and vice-versa. The tragedy in the former case lies in the fact that the reincarnating man will again meet them face to face in some future incarnation. If they return to him with "dirty faces" and he is born with some infirmity or affliction, shall we say that it is due to "the will of God" or blind chance, or shall we say that it is due to his own ignorance and violation of the impersonal laws, or habits, of Nature?
Another Common Objection
Another objection we sometimes hear is this: "I do not want to come back again; I've had enough trouble in this life. If I thought I had to go through it all again, it would be terrible. There is no comfort in that idea for me." Our personal desires and wishes have little effect upon the cyclic laws of nature, and whether we like it or not, they will continue to operate. But why should anyone assume that the next life would be exactly like the present one? Nature repeats itself, but always in diversity. In all probability the karmic impulses which produced the unhappy conditions of the present life would have expended themselves, and the future earth-life might be, and probably would be, far brighter and happier.
If Reincarnation assured everyone that he would be reborn under the most favorable circumstances possible, that he would have social position, wealth, power, a large retinue of servants, high-powered motor cars to ride in, that he would have to work only when he felt like it, and could do just about as he pleased all his life: if this were the doctrine, then, in all probability, it would become the most popular religious belief overnight. The fly in the ointment is that Reincarnation and Karma "put the finger" as they say, on a very vulnerable spot in human nature — individual responsibility. Theosophy furnishes no karmic scapegoat to which we can tie our mistakes and then drive it into the wilderness with shouting and rejoicing as did the ancient tribes of old.
There is no power in the universe through which we can escape the consequences of our own acts, the karmic impulses which we already have generated. Every cause will produce its inevitable effect, good or bad. Thus it will be seen that man is his own "creator," if that much abused term may be pardoned.
Remembrance of Past Lives
"If we have lived before, why is it," it is sometimes asked, "that we cannot remember our past lives?" The fact that we cannot proves nothing. We cannot recall all of the present one. The fact that we have forgotten the years of our infancy is no proof that we did not exist at that time.
While we do have a subjective memory of past lives in the deeper reaches of consciousness, we cannot recall it objectively for the reason that the brain-mind, with its store of worldly gleanings, disintegrates at death, for it belongs to that portion of the human constitution which is wholly mortal. Character is the accumulated results, Nature's record of our past experiences in other lives.
Perhaps it is better that we cannot recall our past lives. In all likelihood, the picture would not be altogether lovely. There might be some pages from which we should be glad to turn, just as we are glad to forget some of the details of our present experiences. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," and the mistakes of the present life give many of us plenty of working material for improvement.
Reincarnation is the lost chord of modern thought. We need a larger view of the purpose and destiny of the human race. Theosophy relates man to the Universe and shows that his individual consciousness is a ray of the Universal Cosmic Consciousness — not just a body to which a newly "created" soul is suddenly added at birth. Nor are we accidental products of blind, mechanical forces. Each individual is a part of a living, organic Universe which carries within its own unfolding plan, atoms, men, worlds, solar systems, and galaxies as the divine drama is enacted on the cosmic stage of Life.
Through innumerable incarnations, the human Ego, which is the real actor, assumes many roles, and takes on the disguise of many personalities, which are dropped one by one, as necessary experience is gained. The personality is but the mask which is worn for a day, during which time the real actor becomes so absorbed in the role which is being played, that the real Self is forgotten for the time being.
An understanding of Reincarnation and Karman removes the incentive for selfish gain which so often results in needless human suffering, for it reveals the futility of striving for self alone. Our lives, from prince to pauper, from genius to the plodding toiler, are inseparably linked with karmic threads of destiny which we weave into the grotesque or beautiful patterns of our lives as we journey along together on the Long Pilgrimage. Probably the highest virtue of Reincarnation lies in the fact that it is the hopeful doctrine of "another chance," the opportunity to right old wrongs, and to reap the reward and fruits of kindly and compassionate help given to fellow pilgrims in the long forgotten past. It has been universally believed in the East for countless centuries, and is steadily gaining recognition and acceptance among thinkers and scholars in the western world, not among Theosophists alone, but among students in general and people in all walks of life. It has been the theme of scholars, poets, and mystics in every age, but perhaps none has sung its mystic song of hope with more force and beauty than did John Masefield, the present Poet Laureate of England in his poem "A Creed":
I hold that when a person dies
His soul returns again to earth;
Arrayed in some new flesh-disguise
Another mother gives him birth
With sturdier limbs and brighter brain
The old soul takes the roads again.
Such is my own belief and trust;
This hand, this hand that holds the pen,
Has many a hundred times been dust
And turned, as dust, to dust again;
These eyes of mine have blinked and shone
In Thebes, in Troy, in Babylon.
And as I wander on the roads
I shall be helped and healed and blessed;
Dear words shall cheer and be as goads
To urge to heights before unguessed.
My road shall be the road I made;
And all I gave shall be repaid.
So shall I fight, so shall I tread,
In this long war beneath the stars;
So shall a glory wreathe my head,
So shall I faint and show the scars,
Until this case, this clogging mould
Be smithied all to kingly gold.
1. Presented to the Psychology Club of Norwalk, Conn, at the Norwalk High School, March 23, 1937. (return to text)
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