[Note: page numbers cited for The Esoteric Tradition are to the 2-vol. Second Edition and do not correspond to the 1-vol. 3rd & Revised Edition.]
We take as our text a remarkable passage from the writings of a man who would usually be classed as a type of the scientific materialism and skepticism as to things spiritual, characteristic of so much of the scientific thought of last century. Yet a devotion to the proclaimed scientific impartiality in the discovery of truth will inevitably lead to the truth, though our findings may often be vitiated by our prejudices.
In the article on Protozoa by the late Professor E. Ray Lankester, in the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we read as follows:
Death. — It results from the constitution of the Protozoan body as a single cell and its method of multiplication by fission that death has no place as a natural recurrent phenomenon among these organisms. Among the Enterozoa certain cells are separated from the rest of the constituent units of the body as egg-cells and sperm-cells; these conjugate and continue to live, whilst the remaining cells, the mere carriers as it were of the immortal reproductive cells, die and disintegrate. There being no carrying cells which surround, feed, and nurse the reproductive cells of Protozoa, but the reproductive cell being itself and alone the individual Protozoon, there is nothing to die, nothing to be cast off by the reproductive cell when entering on a new career of fission. The bodies of the higher animals which die may from this point of view be regarded as something temporary and non-essential, destined merely to carry for a time, to nurse, and to nourish the more important and deathless fission- products of the unicellular egg. Some of these fission-products of the new individual developed from an egg-cell — namely, the egg-cells and sperm-cells — are as immortal as the unicellular Protozoon.
Before commenting on the above, let us invite comparison with another quotation — this time from The Esoteric Tradition, p. 336:
It should also be remembered that the First Root-Race strictly speaking did not "die" at all, but each "generation" melted into its own progeny in the very beginning. . . . Towards the end of the First Root-Race and during the beginning of the Second Root-Race, when fission gave place to budding, the process was pretty much the same because "death" had not yet come upon the scene.
What Professor Lankester gives here are of course facts of observation; and his materialism does not come into play to destroy their effect. The student of Theosophy will recognise his remarks as being illustrative of Theosophical teachings as to evolution. Underlying the entire cycle of evolutionary changes is a central thread which is persistent throughout, constituting the true basis of immortality. The bodily structure is but a temporary creation, emerging from the central stem, living its life cycle and performing its functions, and then disappearing; while the main stem, undying, sends forth in due course another temporary structure. Such is biologically the history of animal beings of all degrees above the unicellular — physical man included. This, so far, does not necessarily imply reincarnation; it implies the immortality of a species — say the human species — a thing which nobody doubts; and it explains the persistence of ancestral traits, cases of atavism, the preservation of the integrity of type. Probably this would be as far as the professor would go; for he would envision a universe in which a mysterious being called "Matter" lived and worked all these wonders. To him, consciousness is a manifestation of matter; to the Theosophist, matter is a manifestation of consciousness. This immortal germ, then, which persists throughout the endless generations, is verily the physical counterpart of that "thread-soul" or sutratman which is the unbroken chain that links together all the periodic manifestations which it throws out. There is no absolute death for man, so long as we regard this central life-stream as the real man. The only things which can die are compounds, and they die by decomposing into elements. They die as compounds, though the elements composing them live on and may enter into other compounds.
So far we have obtained but a sketchy summary of the principle involved; but, as regards man, its application will carry us into details and elaborations. It is not that man is composed merely of one immortal essence, and of perishable parts. He is composed of principles having relative degrees of immortality. We may learn about this from what we are taught by Theosophy respecting the various monads: the Divine Monad, the Spiritual, the Manasic, the Psychic, the Astral-Physical; each of which has a life-cycle appropriate to itself, and of greater duration as we ascend the scale. Again, we have the teachings as to the migration and return of the life-atoms; so that the complexity of the whole overleaps our powers of conception, utterly simple as the principle is.
And in what state is that unicellular being (plant or animal)? In it the thread soul is never interrupted by the throwing out of temporary vehicles; it lives always in its central essence. Is it in Nirvana? Extremes meet; lines run full circle; there is nothing high, nothing low, in a just view. We are fond of viewing the universe as a long ladder up which we slowly climb from the mineral to the kingdoms above man; but how can we be sure which direction is up and which is down? This is said in all reverence and sincerity. The answer can be found by studying the Theosophical teachings. All motion is dual; cycles run right and left; simplicity begins and ends the scale; involution down means evolution up. The lowliest atom is the shrine of a God. And do not beings who have achieved heights in evolution "descend," in accordance with natural law, into simple imbodiments in what we classify as the lower kingdoms?