We all desire knowledge, and it is right that we should. The desire for knowledge is the divine spark that makes man more than beast. If it is quenched, the man is asleep — perhaps even dead. Some religious teaching has discouraged knowledge, and has made a false distinction between holiness and knowledge, as if the one excluded the other. Religious allegory has been perverted to suit this doctrine. The Serpent in the Garden of Eden — the wisest of all the animals — stands for the divine power which imparted to man the desire for knowledge and the power to know. He was called man's Tempter, because he gave man freedom of choice. The Genesis allegory tells of an early race of mankind which dwelt in a state of ignorant innocence and harmless bliss; this state is called the Garden of Eden, and its presiding deity is the "Lord God" of the narrative. But there comes the time when man has to awaken and move on; he is confronted by the Serpent, who arouses in him the slumbering intelligence, so that man becomes a responsible being, no longer an unintelligent follower of fixed routine. The Greek version of this story is found in the legend of Prometheus, who brings heavenly fire to man in defiance of the authority of Zeus. Lucifer, Phosphoros, Light-Bringer, are other names for man's divine instructors. Similar allegories are to be found in the sacred books of India and other cultures; and they all refer to that stage in human evolution when man acquired self-consciousness and free will.
This universal allegory has however been perverted, so that Lucifer, the Serpent, etc., are made into evil powers, seeking man's destruction, and ruling over a hierarchy of evil spirits in rebellion against God. This libel on human nature, this perversion of history, is responsible for a world of trouble and perplexity. There is no antithesis between the desire for knowledge and the practice of virtue. The attempt to make such a separation drives the quest of knowledge into directions that are useless or harmful, and leaves religion dry and barren.
But knowledge cannot be the handmaiden of self-seeking, or it will but increase the descent into woe which self-seeking, if persisted in, must inevitably bring. The only real knowledge is self-knowledge. Knowledge does not consist in an accumulation of information or facts or theories; but in an opening of the vision. Moreover it is not knowledge till we have confirmed it by practice. Hence knowledge is inseparably united to conduct; if it does not influence our conduct, then it is only a half-hearted belief.
Earnest students of Theosophy may desire to know more, and may perhaps complain that they do not seem to progress. They may compare themselves or their opportunities unfavorably with other people and with the opportunities which they suppose the other people to enjoy. But particular circumstances can make no difference, if we view the matter aright; and all Theosophists, whatever their circumstances, stand on equal footing so far as circumstances are concerned — an equal footing as regards the ability to acquire real knowledge. For wisdom comes from purifying our faculties, "removing the covers of the soul," as W. Q. Judge puts it; and our eyes can be cleared by following the path of duty. The veils which we put up are of our own making, and by ourselves can be withdrawn..
Those who would win the truth must woo the truth. They must practise sincerity and truthfulness always, practise them in secret, be true to themselves in every thought and motive. Yet how many of us live in an atmosphere of falsification! Do we not often strive to maintain our position when we know we are wrong, thus sacrificing the truth to a desire to save our face? Do we not make for ourselves excuses which we would not make for another, thus permitting self-love to blind our eye to justice? How can we expect to win truth if we flout her in this way? What right have we to complain? And how simple the remedy!
We should like to understand more about Karman. Karman may be the law of cause and effect philosophically, but on the moral plane, if it means anything, it means justice. Then, if we are to understand justice, we must practise justice, surely; and this, for our purpose, means much more than ordinary fair-dealing in the world of men. It means perfect justice and sincerity in our own private thoughts; we must never fool ourselves in the interests of self-love. The law of Karman is said to bristle with difficulties, and perhaps some of that may be because we talk about it too much; has it ever occurred to us to practise Karman?
There is a rule which says we must not be continually concerned with attempts to justify ourselves. It is a wise rule. This anxiety for self-justification springs from a desire to accentuate our personality as against other personalities; it emphasizes the feeling of separateness. But the feeling of separateness is the greatest obstacle to knowledge. How then can we attain knowledge if we are so constantly defeating our own purpose?
Criticism of other people is in exactly the same case. What could emphasize personality more than this setting up of our own notions and prejudices against those of others? This is understood easily enough if, instead of taking our own case, we consider the case of some other person who criticizes. We can realize that he is hardening his own prejudices and building a cactus hedge around his mind against the entry of new ideas.
Mental culture, self-culture, in various guises, forms the stock-in-trade of many cults nowadays, which attract a numerous section of the public because they appeal to human wants. Some of these appeals are of a frankly acquisitive nature — the attainment of objects of desire of one sort or another. There can be no doubt that we have within us latent powers, not normally active, but which can be called forth, and which can be made to subserve our desires for gain, influence, or what not. But a Theosophist would regard this as simply feeding the enemy, for it increases the force of those very personal desires which he knows that he must allay if he is to attain his object of self-knowledge. Moreover personal gain of this sort is made at the expense of others, just as in the case of any other kind of pushing oneself to the front and pushing others back. Sometimes self-culture does not take this acquisitive aggressive form, but aims rather at tranquilizing the mind, reaching a state of calm imperturbability and inward blessedness. Here is another danger which the truth-seeker has to guard against; he desires not to be any kind of hermit, and the walls which we build to shut out discomforts may also shut us from sympathy with our fellow-beings.
Thus it is easy to explain the Theosophical idea of attaining knowledge, and to point out the obstacles which we ourselves create, and how they may be overcome. But in actual life mere precept is not enough, and to it must be added experience, often taking the form of sharp lessons. It is only thus that truths become vital and acquire for us a real meaning. If we try to define our motive for pursuing the Theosophical path, we are not likely to satisfy ourselves. We feel that such motives as can be defined in words are not adequate; we may fear to convict ourselves of hypocrisy. The motive is a sublime aspiration, felt from within, but taking many forms in its passage through the analysing mind. How many such aspirations are wasted for want of the means to make them fruitful! Theosophy gives these means, and the desire to render them available to those who have them not must arise in the heart of a disciple who has truly understood the Theosophical teachings.