The Theosophical Forum – March 1938


Only a little time ago an important astronomical discovery was announced which accentuates anew in this special department of science the general truth of the teachings of the Old Wisdom-Religion. Perhaps it may be of interest to communicate some particulars about this discovery, as on the one hand the real significance of it can be appreciated only if viewed in connexion with those teachings; while on the other hand the newly discovered facts may be welcomed as distinct and, so to say, tangible examples of the teaching of evolution and involution, which in its rather abstract, general formulation perhaps might affect one as being somewhat abstruse and difficult to grasp. Lastly we shall see how the insight thus won may be connected by the law of analogy with other partly well-known, partly still problematic, scientific facts — and so may help us to get a clear vision of these facts while at the same time demonstrating how their very core is to be found in the eternal and everlasting cycle which the Spirit follows in Its perennial peregrination from involution to evolution and back again.

A short explanation of the astronomical discovery mentioned above may precede a discussion of those facts as seen from the standpoint of Theosophy.

Firstly, the following phenomenon demands our attention. From time to time suddenly a new star lights up the sky. In some cases the Nova — which is the technical term for the phenomenon — blazes out in a surprisingly great luminosity so as to be quite a spectacular object, but owing to their great distance from our solar system the greater part of the Novae become visible only to the photographic plate of the ever-watchful astronomer. As an example can be mentioned the star which appeared on November 11th, 1572, in the constellation of Cassiopeia and surpassed Venus in brightness. It became visible even in broad daylight, such was its splendor. And again, to mention quite a recent case, another Nova appeared in December, 1934, in the constellation of Hercules, which became as bright as the third magnitude, i. e., was somewhat fainter than the brightest stars of the Great Dipper.

The term "Nova," i. e., "new star," in fact is misleading, for careful investigations have brought to light that in each case the Nova pre-existed as a faint star, which — mainly because of its faintness — had failed to attract attention before. We know, e. g., from photographs of that portion of the sky where Nova Herculis appeared — and taken previous to its sudden outburst — that the Nova is identical with a faint star of the 14th magnitude, which in a few days" time became as much as 25,000 times brighter. Analogous numbers are stated in every case that has been investigated.

Now we do not know exactly as yet what happens, what cosmic catastrophe is going on in that distant world when the astronomers of our earth announce the discovery of another Nova; still it may be assumed safely that it is an occurrence of the first importance in the life of the star.

The further history of the Nova offers some points of interest as well. In most cases the brightness soon diminishes. At the end of some months the Nova has resumed its former faint luminosity. But it has been noticed that some time after the outburst there appears a disk of nebulous matter surrounding the image of the star, which has a tendency to continue to expand.

Before going into the significance of this last feature we will now go off at a tangent with an inquiry as to the classification of nebulae.

In the main there are two species of nebulae; the spiral or extra-galactic nebulae, which in fact are great stellar systems, like our own galaxy, in all kinds of evolutionary states; and the gaseous nebulae, which are imbedded in and form a portion of the galactic system. The latter nebulae may be subdivided into two groups: the irregular nebulae, like the great nebula in Orion, and the planetary nebulae. The reader is warned not to mix up these terms: when an astronomer speaks of a "planetary" nebula he does not mean a nebula which in the course of its evolution is destined to become a planet; the term only alludes to the disk-like appearance of this class of nebulae, which reminds one somewhat of the disk of a planet when viewed through a telescope.

The irregular nebulae have always been taken for the birthplaces of stars; by some evolutionary process the nebulous matter condensing into starlike conglomerations, which in the course of time will grow to become stars of the early spectral-types.

About the planetary nebulae there has been much discussion, but at present there is a general understanding that these objects are the outcome of the processes which had their beginning in the outburst of a Nova.

So while the irregular nebulae marked the beginning of the evolution of stars, the planetary nebulae closed their careers. By this interpretation — founded on the "one-way texture of becoming," as Sir A. S. Eddington puts it, which knows only of life beginning with birth and ending with death — of course an immeasurable gulf divides the irregular nebulae from the planetary ones. Now here comes the important discovery which has been made. At the Lick Observatory an irregular nebula, known as the "Crab'-nebula in the constellation of Taurus, has been studied with the result that it has been found expanding at the rate of 1050 km/sec. This very unexpected fact leads us to speculate whether this rather irregular nebula might not have started as a planetary nebula formed by the outburst of a Nova, in which case the expansion should be a normal feature. By the rate of expansion it could be calculated that this outburst — if outburst there has been — must have occurred some 800 years ago, and as the distance of the nebula is "only" 4900 light-years it seemed very probable that the hypothetical Nova must have been a conspicuous object to the naked eye. So far so good; but has there been a Nova in that portion of the sky at the allotted time?

Indeed, there has been! The Chinese annals mention the appearance of a new star in the constellation of Taurus in the year 1054. So the rather hazardous hypothesis is fully confirmed.

But think of the significance of this fact. The gulf, gaping between irregular nebulae and planetary nebulae — or, if you like, between life and death — has been bridged! Although no details can be given as yet, we see before us an unbroken chain beginning with an irregular nebula, which condenses into stars; the stars follow an evolution which ends in the flaring up of a Nova; the Nova gives birth to a planetary nebula and this nebula changes back to an irregular nebula. Apart even from other considerations, one can see that here is made a discovery of the first importance for all cosmogonic speculations.

Now let us consider what the Old Wisdom has to tell us about these truly wondrous results that modern astronomy can boast of.

Of course, as Theosophists we could never accept the "one-way texture of becoming," nor do we agree that we should feel more content if "the universe should accomplish some great scheme of evolution and, having achieved whatever may be achieved, lapse back into chaotic changelessness." We are told — and we are able time after time to state the truth of the tale in each particular instance — that the Kosmos is built on the principle of an endless interchange of evolutions and involutions. In order to catch the true meaning of this teaching as regards what is happening on an astronomical scale, it is well to recall to our minds the following passages of Dr. de Purucker's Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, where it says:

When the astronomer looks into the ethery spaces and sees those starry clouds, those nebulous masses, in some cases (though not in all, for these nebulae are not all the same, but in those which are) destined for the beginning of worlds, he sees there what has so far taken place in material manifestation of a hierarchy through the activity of the sub-seven degrees of the lowest or seventh principle of a divine entity or "god" informing an otherwise invisible life-center, informed by that god's vital essence, which is the fundamental life of that hierarchy, the fundamental impulse, or what men call the fundamental "law," the fundamental operation of its nature, the fundamental characteristic, the Swabhava. In such manner, then, the vital essence creates its own dwelling — a sun, a planet, which cycles down, as it were, into visible evolution. But mark: each Head of a hierarchy retains its own place, powers and nature; but its offspring thicken or condense; its offspring thus forming its garments on the several planes of being. . . .

When this thickening and grossening of the fabric (which takes place from each entity shooting forth from itself, emanating from itself other less entities, — "less" here meaning "inferior") reaches its lowest degree, then we have a sun and planets. Let us take our planet as an instance. When such a planet has reached its lowest point of evolution driven by the karmic impulse inhering in it, which is at the middle point of its Fourth Round (which we on our planet have passed), then begins the reaction, the reversal of the kosmic operation, and the life-currents begin to withdraw inwards, . . . not leaving its "garments" behind altogether; but as they were sent forth, so are they now withdrawn inwards. This, then, is an outline of the process of the evolution of spirit, and the involution of matter; just as the processes of projection or casting forth were the involution of spirit and the evolution of matter on the downward or Shadowy Arc. Thus is the Kosmos built. — pp. 348-9

If it is grasped what here is told in so few words, and our mind is turned back to the discovery which has been mentioned and which means a bridging of the gulf between irregular nebulae and planetary nebulae, it is easily understood that here we have an instance of the same process as was depicted for a planet, but now on a different scale. When an irregular nebula condenses into stars — or suns as they may be called with equal right — and the stars pass through the different stages indicated by their spectra, we must speak of the process of evolution of matter. But when of a sudden the star blazes out in a new light and gives birth to a planetary nebula, which in time changes into an irregular nebula, we see before us the process of involution of matter.

Now perhaps it may be thought that the cycle is finished, that once again the irregular nebula, which formed the outcome of the process of involution, will condense into stars and so on. But against so simplistic a view the New Science rebels as much as the Old Wisdom. Science argues, that such a process, although perhaps it might repeat itself several times, cannot go on for ever, since during each round of necessity the so-called "entropy" of the system will augment till at last it has reached its maximum and then the process must end willy-nilly. We will not go into this argument, as it would require a very difficult and technical discussion; we only will say this much, that if the process really was as simple as this, science could score its point in maintaining that the cycle should be doomed to end before long. In a material universe submitted to purely mechanistic laws there seems to be no possible loophole for escaping what Svante Arrhenius has termed the heat-death — in this assertion science is absolutely right. But then, our universe is not a purely material world acted upon by blind forces which follow strictly mechanical laws. The New Science begins to have an inkling of this truth. The relativity principle of Einstein, the quantum-laws of Planck, the wave-mechanics of de Broglie, Heisenberg, and Schrodinger, and the principle of indeterminacy of Heisenberg are the first signs of the radical revolution of thought which is going on — and which will help Science to revert to the temporarily forgotten truths of the Old Wisdom. Only by voicing those old and immutable truths in the new language which nowadays is spoken, will Science succeed in elucidating the problems which otherwise must baffle it. Hesitatingly, Science is feeling its way. It stands at the beginning of this new path, and progress is made only haltingly. Still there is much which entitles us to keep our courage and to expect that in the end the New Science and the Old Wisdom will tread the same path hand in hand. But this as yet is only a vision of the future. Let us come back to the problem at hand.

We have seen that Science maintains the impossibility of an everlasting cycle: irregular nebulae — stars — Novae — planetary nebulae — irregular nebulae. The Old Wisdom corroborates this view, but from quite different motives. Where, according to the Science of today the process of involution of matter ends by the forming of nebulous matter, or — if we rather stress the possibilities — "by the production of radiant energy, the Old Wisdom tells us, that this phase is by no means the end of the process of involution of matter and therefore of evolution of Spirit; and it adds (as we have seen in our quotation from the Fundamentals) that these processes are not governed by blind forces or purely mechanical laws, but by the activity of a divine principle, which reveals itself on the lower, material planes as forces and law, but which unfolds its true and sublime nature on the higher planes. Thus the involution manifesting itself in the formation of nebulous matter out of gross and condensed matter from the former, nearly "extinguished" stars, marks the beginning of the evolution of the divine principle, which had clothed itself in the garment of matter. This evolution does not end even if our gross sense-organs fail to see any further involution of matter, this having reached the phase called "radiant energy"; for what on our plane manifests itself as energy, reveals itself on a higher plane as a loftier form of matter, which can and will continue the involution, the first states of which we are witnessing on our plane. Indeed, this involution will continue its course until the accompanying evolution of the Spirit has reached its highest point, where the divine principle has wholly unfolded itself and by so doing has risen a step higher on the endless staircase which begins nowhere and always finds a step, nay, an infinity of steps higher than the one just reached. Then, and not earlier, the Spirit is prepared to descend again by the downward arc, leading to another involution and causing at the same time a new evolution of matter, first on the higher and loftier planes, but gradually condensing and thickening as lower and lower realms are reached — till at last new nebulae and new stars make their appearance, be it perhaps on a higher plane than the present one.

If we ponder on the vistas which are opened up to us by the Secret Doctrine in relation to the discovery that a planetary nebula may change back into an irregular nebula, we may get an inkling of the extensiveness of this Hidden Wisdom, compared to which even the most momentous discoveries of our present science — and some of them really are marvelous! — dwindle to rather stale matter-of-fact statements. But the full significance of these vistas will only impress us with all its force if we realize that what we have discerned on the plane of suns, stars, and nebulae, must, by the law of analogy, repeat itself with due adaptations on other planes as well. We shall set aside the fascinating consequences which confront our enthralled spiritual vision, and content ourselves with presenting a scheme of comparison between some noteworthy physical cycles — which show in a measure resemblance to the astronomical cycle, our starting-point — leaving it to the intuition of the reader to draw his own inferences.


1. Doctor of Physics and Astronomy, University lecturer in Astronomy at the University of Utrecht, Holland. (return to text)

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