There is a wisdom-tradition that once was universally known by every people on the face of the globe, a common treasury of inspiration and truth from which the saviors and benefactors of mankind draw. Known variously in different eras as the perennial philosophy, the gnosis of Greek and early Christian thought, the esoteric tradition, or the Mystery-teachings of the sanctuary — it is this god-wisdom that Jesus shared with the fisherfolk of Galilee; that Gautama imparted to ferryman and prince; and that Plato immortalized in letters and dialogues, in fable and myth. Today the modern presentation of this wisdom is called theosophy.
What is theosophy? The word is of Greek origin, from theos, "god," and sophia, "wisdom," meaning "wisdom concerning divine matters." As a term it has a venerable history, having been used by Neoplatonic and Christian writers from the 3rd to the 6th century AD, as well as by Qabbalists and Gnostics in an attempt to describe how the One becomes the many, how divinity or God manifests itself in a series of emanations throughout all the kingdoms of nature. It was in use during medieval and renaissance times, Jakob Boehme being called the Teutonic Theosopher on account of his vision of man as microtheos and microcosmos.
The word theosophia has also been linked to Ammonius Saccas of Alexandria who, in the 3rd century AD, is said to have imparted to his pupils a theosophical system or school of thought in an attempt to fuse into a universal synthesis the seemingly divergent elements of the archaic wisdom then current in that teeming metropolis. Of exemplary character, he was called theodidaktos, "god-taught," on account of the divine inspirations he received. Ammonius exacted the strictest morality and although no record of his teachings or practices was made, providentially his pupil Plotinus later recorded for posterity the salient teachings of his master. Thus we have the Enneads or "Nine" books of Neoplatonism, which have exerted a profound influence through succeeding centuries.
Later in Europe, Qabbalists, Alchemists, the early Rosicrucians and Freemasons, Fire Philosophers, Theosophers, and others pursued the self-same purpose. Singly, and in secret associations, they held that the One, Divinity, the indefinable Principle, emanated forth from itself the entire universe, and that all beings and things within it will ultimately return to that source. More specifically, they sought to inject into the Christianity of their day the signal truth that mystical union with Divinity was everyone's birthright because within each human being is a divine kernel.
Clearly, then, the theosophic endeavor, its teaching and practice, is not a new movement. It is ageless, rooted in the infinity of the past as firmly as it will be rooted in the infinity of aeons to come.
What is this theosophy which has been passed on from sage to sage through untold ages — from Vivasvat, the sun, who told it to Manu, who in turn handed it down to rishis and seers until "the mighty art was lost"? (Cf. Bhagavad-Gita 4:1-3 (Judge recension, p. 23) It is the core inspiration of sacred scripture, and the wisdom that we distill from daily experience. Theosophy has no creed, no dogma, no set of beliefs that must be accepted, because truth is not something beyond or outside us, but in fact is within. Nonetheless, it comprises a coherent body of teachings about man and nature that have been expressed in various ways in the sacred traditions of the world.
The modern theosophical movement began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century — a timely intervention, for the preceding decades had witnessed a radical upheaval in spiritual and intellectual thought. Theologians and scientists had been thrown into confusion and often bitter conflict after the publication in 1830-33 of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which gave irrefutable evidence of earth's immense age. This was followed in 1859 by Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, and The Descent of Man in 1871 which purported to trace man's origin to an ancient form which diverged from the Catarrhine monkey stock — arousing a controversy still very much alive today. Archaeology further revolutionized Western perspectives on man's spiritual history by revealing an Egyptian civilization of splendor and a Babylonian story of Noah and the Deluge that antedated the biblical one; moreover, the Orient, which until the 1780s had been a closed book to the Occident, now was beginning to emancipate Western thought with its rich philosophic treasures.
World consciousness was ripe for change: on the one hand, rampant materialism both in theology and science had a stranglehold on independent inquiry and, on the other, many people hungry to believe in the immortality of the soul were being led astray by the will-o'-the-wisp of spiritualistic phenomena. A cosmic vision of man and his role in the universe was sorely needed, one that would restore trust in divine law and offer meaningful explanation of the seemingly cruel injustices of earthly existence.
H. P. Blavatsky, a woman of extraordinary gifts powered by a fearless devotion to truth and to the eradication of the causes of human suffering, became the leading exponent for the modern theosophical movement. One of a long line of "transmitters" of the universal god-wisdom, she cast into the thought-atmosphere of the world electrifying ideas, innovative ideas, ideas which would revolutionize the thinking of mankind. Chief among these was that we are a oneness. She encouraged the investigation and study of the spiritual heritage of all peoples, in order to eradicate the conceit that any race or people is the "chosen one," has the only true religion and the one and only God. Even a casual examination of other belief systems broadens our horizons. It is a thrilling experience to discern the same golden thread running through every tradition, whether religious, philosophic, or so-called primitive; we feel at once a sympathy, an empathy, with all who hold or cherish these truths. This in itself makes for a oneness, a feeling of understanding, a linkage of destiny.
Under the guidance and inspiration of her teachers, HPB was helped to write The Secret Doctrine (1888). Using a number of Stanzas from the Book of Dzyan, drawn from "a very old book" not found in any modern library, she unfolds a magnificent panorama encompassing the genesis and evolutionary destiny of our solar system, earth, and its life-forms. She reminds us that we are not merely a body, with a soul and spirit added on. On the contrary, we are structured on the same pattern as the cosmos, a seven-principled entity, whose gamut of qualities ranges from the physical to the highly ethereal and divine.
Every human being is a copy in miniature of what suns or stars are — living divinities housed in temples of matter. We have as vast a pilgrimage behind us as ahead of us: a past filled with long cycles of experience through which the soul has matured to its present status, and a future of limitless possibilities during which we will evolve out of humanhood into the full glory of godhood. HPB makes no claim to having originated these teachings; rather, she was a transmitter in current language of "a select number of fragments" from the esoteric records.
Before beginning her commentary on the Stanzas of Dzyan, HPB invites us to consider a few "fundamental conceptions which underlie and pervade the entire system of thought" (1:13) on which the sacred science of antiquity and the world's religious and philosophical schools are founded. Reduced to essentials, these are:
1) That there is an eternal, omnipresent, immutable Principle which cannot be defined as it is "beyond the range and reach of thought," yet from It all life emanates or flows forth. Theosophy has no name for this Principle except to call it THAT — the infinite, the uncreate, the rootless root, the cause without a cause. These phrases are merely an effort to describe the indescribable, the infinity of infinities, the boundless essence of divinity which we cannot define. In short, it posits that marvelous primordial essence which Genesis calls the darkness on the face of the deep — that darkness which was sparked into light when the 'elohim breathed on the waters of Space.
2) That universes like "manifesting stars" appear and disappear in tidal flux and ebb, a rhythmic pulsation of spirit and matter, with every life-spark in the cosmos, from stars to atoms, pursuing the same cyclic pattern. There is continual birth and death, appearance and disappearance, of these "sparks of Eternity" as the rhythm of life brings forth ever new life forms for returning worlds: galaxies and suns, human beings, animals, plants, and minerals. All beings and things have their birth and death cycles, because birth and death are gateways of life.
3) That all souls, being at their heart the same in essence as the "Universal Over-Soul," are required to undergo the full cycle of imbodiments in material worlds in order to bring into active expression, by self-effort, their divine potentialities.
Why does divinity manifest so many times and in so many different forms? Every divine seed, every spark of God, every unit of life, must go through the great cycle of experience, from the most spiritual realms to the most material, in order to gain firsthand knowledge of every condition of being. It must learn by becoming every form, i.e., by imbodying in them as it pursues its course through the arc of matter.
Here's a vision to lift the heart: to feel that every human being is a necessary part of the cosmic purpose is to give dignity to our strivings, to the urge to evolve. The reason for this grand "cycle of necessity" is twofold: whereas we start as unself-conscious god-sparks, by the time we have experienced all there is to learn in every life form, not only shall we have awakened into fuller awareness the multitudes of atomic lives which serve as our bodies on the various planes, but we ourselves shall have become gods in our own right.
When we grasp the intimate relationship of these three postulates to ourselves, we come to see how all the other teachings flow forth from them; they are as keys to a larger understanding of reimbodiment, cycles, karma, what happens after death, the cause and relief of suffering, the nature of man and cosmos, the interplay of involution/evolution, and more — all the while the awakening soul is pursuing the eternal quest.
The theosophical philosophy is vast as the ocean: "unfathomable in its deepest parts, it gives the greatest minds their fullest scope, yet, shallow enough at its shores, it will not overwhelm the understanding of a child." (William Q. Judge, The Ocean of Theosophy, p. 1) Even though its truths go deeply into cosmological intricacies, a beautiful simplicity runs through the whole: oneness is the golden key. We are our brothers, no matter what our racial, social, educational, or religious background. And this affinity is not limited to the human kingdom: it takes in every atomic life that is evolving as we are — all within the webwork of hierarchies that compose this pulsating organism we call our universe. Assuredly our great error has been to regard ourselves as discrete particles adrift in a hostile universe, rather than as god-sparks struck from the central hearth of Divinity — as intrinsically one in essence as the flame of the candle is one with the stellar fires in the core of our sun.
The ancient Mahayana Buddhist, with his penchant for metaphor, perhaps said it best: in Indra's heaven is a network of pearls disposed in such a way that when you look at one pearl you find all the other pearls imaged in it; everything in the world likewise is linked with and involved in every other thing, "in fact is everything else." (Cf. "Avatamsaka-sutra," Japanese Buddhism, pp. 109-10) How is it that we humans, supposedly the most advanced of earth dwellers, have ignored for so long this beautiful fact, especially when there is scarcely a race or people, clan or tribe, from the remotest past to the present era which has not cherished the knowledge of it?
Of course, acceptance of the principle of universal brotherhood is relatively simple compared to living it. All of us have difficulty at times living harmoniously with ourselves, let alone with others. Perhaps a first step would be to accept ourselves, to be friends with the whole of our nature, recognizing that when we do so we are accepting our lower tendencies along with our higher potentialities. In this acceptance we automatically are accepting others, their frailties as well as their grandeur. This is brotherhood in action, for it dispels those subtle blockages that bar us from feeling we all are units of one human life-wave.
Already the theme of our oneness with nature has revolutionized present-day thinking and lifestyles. Once again we are beginning to see ourselves as participants in an ecosystem of cosmic dimension. We are discovering that we, the observers, measurably affect not only the object we are observing but the entire complement of evolving entities. Best of all, we are realizing, though not sufficiently as yet, that we are one humanity, and that what you or I do to help another benefits all, striking a resonant chord in the ongoing symphony that together we are composing. Though the burden of our inhumanities is indeed heavy, the universe must rejoice over the slightest movement of compassion in the soul of even a single human being.