[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.]
Looking into the sky at night, we may think of the vast distances which, as we are told, separate the celestial bodies from us: a light year, a hundred, a thousand; nay, one has recently heard of super-galaxies one hundred million light-years away. But we are apt to forget that these bodies are not merely spread out in space, but in time also. If a body is 100 light-years distant, it means that what I see is not what is there now, but what was there a century ago; and for aught I know, it may have ceased to exist for a century. And what of the super-galaxy? What we see there through our large telescope is what existed in one of the earlier Root-Races of mankind! Truly I may say that I am not looking into space, but into history.
It is impossible, by any means now known to us, to view the heavens as they are at any one given time; every body that we see is at a different epoch in time. And yet, if I am not careful, I may find myself speculating and making calculations about the transference of energy between these bodies, as though they all existed together at one time.
How can I measure the distance between the earth and Sirius? To speak of this distance is like speaking of the distance between me at Point Loma and Socrates in Athens. I can only measure from where I am now to where the star was then. What am I measuring? Space or time; or space-time? This may help us to understand what Einstein and others are engaged with — trying to find formulas that will mean something when applied to problems of interstellar space.
The velocity of light is so great that we can afford to ignore it for terrestrial purposes. But suppose that the velocity of light were diminished proportionately. If I saw you in the distance, it would be no use shouting to you, because I could only see you in the place where you were a minute before I shouted. It would be futile to shoot at any moving object, for there would be no means of knowing where it was at the time of shooting. This gives some idea of the hash we may make if we try to apply terrestrial notions to celestial affairs.
But this is no reason for despair. We are on the threshold of an advance like that inaugurated by Galileo and Newton, and it is producing much the same kind of consternation. Before those pioneers, nobody had any conception of gravitation or of many other mechanical principles now familiar to all. Einstein and the others are pioneering; for some time there will be perplexity and confusion, mistakes and corrections; but it will settle down into a new formulation; and in time the masses will become conscious of it.
It does not seem wonderful that the Theosophical teachings should contain many things hard to explain; they have to be translated into terms familiar to us, and in the translation they are of course deformed. When H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine was written, these ideas about space and time were not in the air. But read The Esoteric Tradition, (1) pages 388-9, where the ideas are given full credit.
Space and time do not seem so different from each other. The distance between objects is generally considered as spatial; that between events, as temporal distance. But, as has been shown, these two kinds of distance seem strangely interblended when we are dealing with the heavenly bodies. If we settle on a ratio between spatial and temporal quantities — in this case the velocity of light — we can equally well express the distance of a star in years or in miles. The sun is 93,000,000 miles away, or eight seconds away.
If we regard the earth as still — which it is often convenient to do — we are able to rest still in one place for an hour, a day. But if we are to take into account the motion of the earth round the sun, the motion of the sun round some other body, and so on indefinitely, it is clear that we can never remain in one place for even the smallest fraction of a second. Nor can we ever come back again to the same place (unless indeed it be at the completion of some vast cyclic period). In a word, we are eternally shifting, in space or in time, whichever you like. It is thoughts like these which urge us to realize our entry upon a revolution similar to that ushered in by the heliocentric theory. We cannot afford to be geocentric or flat-earthist, or we shall be left behind in the march of thought.
1. The Esoteric Tradition, by G. de Purucker, Theosophical University Press. (return to text)