Truth is found in all sacred writings if we dig deep enough beneath dogma and ritual to find the rich ore of esotericism. The Judeo-Christian genesis story was never intended to be taken literally, any more than were the creation myths of Tahiti or ancient Persia, China or the Americas. The oral and written traditions of every people, in varying metaphor and symbol, point to the awesome moment in beginningless time when Darkness became Light and from the deeps of Silence came the sounding of Logos, the Word, causing gods and stars to sing together for the sheer joy of being and becoming.
How "nothingness" is able to bring forth a universe with its hosts of lives of every type and grade is a perennial mystery. How does zero become one and one beget two, then three, to produce in turn myriads of living beings, from stars to humans, animals to atoms? When all is formless and void, who or what initiates the first quiver of rhythmic pulsation within the vast expanses of Chaos?
Those versed in the ancient Jewish theosophy of Qabbalah repeatedly cite certain passages from the Zohar — the best known Qabbalistic treatise constituting a running commentary on the Torah, the sacred "Law" of the Hebrews — which affirm that he who would penetrate to the kernel of meaning hidden within the Torah must peel off husk after husk to reach the soul. If he would intuit essence, he must peel off still further layers, for within every word and sentence is a high mystery. "But the wise, whose wisdom makes them full of eyes, pierce through the garment to the very essence of the word that is hidden thereby." (The Zohar (iii:98b), trans. Harry Sperling, Maurice Simon, and Dr. Paul P. Levertoff, 3:300)
Paradoxically, while to us the universe in essence is uncreate and infinite, without beginning and without end, every manifested universe has a point of origin, a coming forth out of "nothingness," out of Darkness into Light, and the succession of lives that ensue. The Qabbalah envisions three stages of non-existence between the Darkness of the Deep of Genesis and the coming forth of Light: 1) 'ayin, "nothing," nonbeing, the void, beyond all power of conception; 2) 'ein sof, "no limit, without end," the limitless or endless expanse; and 3) 'ein sof 'or, "no limit light," boundless light.
When 'ein sof, impelled by divine thought and will and the mysterious power of contraction and expansion, wished to manifest a portion of itself, it concentrated its essence into a single point. This the Qabbalists called Keter (Kether), "Crown," the first emanation of Light, and from this primordial point burst forth "nine splendid lights."
In an attempt to clarify what will always remain an "impenetrable mystery," the Qabbalists imaged the wondrous process of the One becoming the many in varying ways, most often as a Tree of Life composed of ten Sefirot, ten "numbers" or emanations from 'ein sof, the boundless, making a tenfold universe. "Amid the insupportable brilliance" of 'ein sof 'or, boundless light, they visualized the head of 'Adam Qadmon, Ideal or Archetypal Man, the first of four Adams which manifest in four Worlds of descending spiritual stature. The fourth Adam on the fourth world, our earth, ushers in and becomes our present humanity. In other words, on each of the four worlds a tenfold Tree of Life, manifesting along with Archetypal Man, clothes itself in ever more material forms. At length, the fourth world, is able to sustain the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms; and on this world humanity, from being originally asexual, then androgynous, now functions as man and woman. (The reader is referred to the following sources: Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom G. Scholem, notably the chapter titled: "The Zohar II: The Theosophic Doctrine of the Zohar," p. 202 ff.; The Zohar, translated by Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, 5 vols.; Qabbalah by Isaac Myer; Kabbalah: New Perspectives by Moshe Idel)
In this manner the Zohar interprets the first few verses of Genesis, commencing with God (really "gods," 'elohim), forming from themselves the heavens (also plural in the Hebrew) and the earth, which was formless and void until the quickening when the Spirit of God (ruah 'elohim, ``breath of the 'elohim'') fecundated the waters of space.
During the last 2,000 years the word god has come to have a very narrow and fixed meaning in contradistinction to the broad and fluidic connotation it enjoyed all through the Graeco-Roman world and the Near East. At that time the relationship between gods and humans was intimate, gods at times taking human form, and worthy humans attaining the status of godhood. Due to centuries of imposed theological dicta, the word God today generally connotes the Supreme Being or Creator who created the heaven and the earth, and all creatures thereon, i.e., extracosmic, distinct and apart from his creation. Without question, a great many Christians, barring the most rigid of fundamentalist sects, have abandoned the notion of a personal God in the likeness of a man with a long beard, sitting on a throne among the clouds and handing out rewards and punishments according to whim or caprice.
Assuredly, every human being is a spark of that divine Intelligence, with his own inner god at the core of his being. Could any entity, even a dust mote, exist were it not the outermost expression of its unique god-essence? Indeed, every atomic particle is a god-spark imbodying itself in material form. As such it is one in essence with the divinity at the heart of Being. This means that the monads or inner gods at the heart of each of the trillions upon trillions of atoms in all of nature's kingdoms and throughout the cosmos are likewise one in essence — truly a universal kinship of spirit. When we image God as infinite, our perception of the Divine Will becomes as unrestricted as thought and aspiration allow. Is God transcendent or immanent, outside of us or within? The question is redundant if divinity permeates all. Under the press of daily concerns, we tend to forget who we are and the destiny that is ahead not only for us humans but for every monadic life, be it an atom in the brain of an earthworm or in one of Saturn's rings.
In the Gospel according to John (10:34), Jesus reminded those who reviled him: "Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?" — a theme Paul enlarged upon in writing to the people of Corinth: "what communion hath light with darkness? . . . ye are the temple of the living God" (2 Cor. 6:14, 16) and "the Spirit of God dwelleth in you" (1 Cor. 3:16). In view of these verses, often quoted from pulpit and in literature, how is it that for centuries we have erroneously been taught we were "born in sin"?
The allegory of Adam and Eve's fall from grace and their dismissal from the Garden of Eden, instead of representing a transgression, has an exhilarating effect when interpreted as the awakening of mind in early humanity. In order for the early humans (ourselves) to become as gods, we had to "die" from our Eden state of unconscious bliss and take on the challenge of self-awareness of our divine potential. In the process we were obliged to put on "coats of skin" as we imbodied in worlds of matter. Now we are earning our way out of the "sin" of our material condition by the sweat of our brow, spiritually and intellectually, and eventually we shall assume the dignity of our heritage and become fully evolved divinities.
What, then, of Jesus and the story of his life as told in the New Testament? Many Christians no longer regard the Gospel narratives as factual accounts of a historic figure. Some prefer to read in them a symbolic record of the initiatory experience of a savior — of every savior who comes according to cyclic need. Some deny any special divinity to Jesus, seeing him rather as a noble exemplar of humanhood, worthy of emulation. Others, possibly millions, devoutly hold Jesus to be the only Son of God and that solely through believing in him can they be saved. Three conclusions, apparently incompatible; yet when we view them as three ways of looking at Jesus, we get a fairly rounded picture of what he represents.
Simply put, the idea that Jesus came to be a light to the world and to "save us from our sins" shows us how we could save ourselves, how we could free ourselves from bondage and from the tomb of material things — not that we could do whatever we like and then just before we die repent, shift the burden of our guilt on him, and be saved forever and forever.
Gautama Buddha, too, was a light to the world. In fact, when we compare the well-known incidents in the lives of Gautama and Jesus we find an astonishing correspondence: both were born of a virgin mother; both were schooled in and drew inspiration from the sacred traditions of their respective homelands, and rebelled against the orthodoxy of their respective priesthoods; both cut through all barriers of class and religious bias and accepted as disciples whoever was earnest of heart. Emphasis on the "light" within by both Jesus and Gautama assured a divine equality of opportunity to every human being: to Brahman and outcaste, Sadducee and leper, king, courtesan, and fisherman. Notably, Jesus' transfiguration when "his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light" is reminiscent of Gautama's enlightenment and his attainment of final nirvana when the color of the Tathagata's skin became so "clear and exceeding bright" that his robes of cloth of gold lost their splendor. (Matthew 17:2; Maha-Parinibbana-Sutta, iv, secs 48-50) Last but far from least, their coming to earth because of an immense love for mankind — sent by God as a divine Incarnation in the case of Jesus; in consequence of a vow registered lives ago in the case of Gautama — marks them as links in the chain of compassionate Guardians who watch over and inspire us to follow the inward way.*
*One may speculate just how potent an influence was exerted by Asian pilgrims on the Judean Gospel writers. Aside from commercial traffic between the Indian subcontinent and the Hellenic world subsequent to the conquests of Alexander in the 4th century BC, for approximately 700 years thereafter the Library and Museum at Alexandria were centers of spiritual and intellectual intercourse among Buddhists, Persians, Arabs, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and of course Egyptians and other peoples surrounding the Mediterranean Basin; probably also Hindus and Chinese.
Inevitably, the colorful accounts of their birth, ministry, and death are in large part allegory. Whatever there be of solid history in the canonical Gospels or in Buddhist scriptures of both Northern and Southern Schools is clothed in metaphor and legend, so that it is difficult to separate fact from fantasy. Nonetheless, the similarities are too close to ignore, and cause one to question whether the chroniclers may have patterned their respective narratives on some ancient sacred prototype.
In all probability they did, for striking parallels are to be found in the life stories of a number of other world saviors. Persians of old tell of the trials and conquests of Mithras and of a series of Zoroasters; in Mexico Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, was "crucified" and rose from the dead; similarly, the sun gods of the Phrygians and other peoples of Asia Minor suffered death and abuse, as did the Norse Odin who hung nine nights, spear-pierced, on the "windtorn tree" of life. ("Havamal," sec 137, The Masks of Odin by Elsa-Brita Titchenell, p. 126) Is it then so extraordinary that Jesus who became Christos (Anointed, Messiah) should also have experienced a like travail and glorification?
The drama of Jesus begins with the story of his strange and beautiful birth at the winter solstice of a virgin mother, with a star guiding wise men from the East. Similar virgin births are recorded of other Savior figures, such as of the legendary Persian teacher Mithra ("Friend"), about whom a great light shone when he was born. In India over 5,000 years ago when Devaki gave birth at midnight to Krishna, a divine incarnation, the whole world was "irradiate with joy."
Jesus is spoken of as having been born of a "virgin" mother because spirit has no parent. The concept of an immaculate conception is purely mystical and symbolic, and has at least two applications: the one, referring to the initiate who is "born from himself,'' that is to the "birth of the Christ in man from the virgin-part of one's being, i.e., from the spiritual or highest portions of man's constitution"; the other referring to the cosmic virgin, "the Virgin-Mother of Space giving birth through her Child, the Cosmic Logos, to her multitudes of children of various kinds." (G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 622)
As for the Magi or wise men: the Gospels don't tell us their names or what country they came from, or even how many there were. In Western Europe most countries celebrate the coming of Three Kings at Epiphany, on January 6th. Some say they traveled from Persia and that is why they were called Magi, meaning "great" in wisdom. Others, like Augustine, believed that twelve wise men followed the star. Somewhere along the line names were attached: Melchior, Caspar (or Kaspar), and Balthasar. Purucker equates them with three of the seven sacred planets: Melchior with Venus, his casket of gold representing the light that Jesus was to shed upon the world; Caspar who carried myrrh "in a gold-mounted horn," with Mercury; and Balthasar, who offered frankincense, "pure incense," with the Moon. (Ibid. 2:1105-7) It would appear that the wise men bringing gifts are symbolic of qualities which Jesus would need in order to bring to birth the Christos.
And the star? According to the German astronomer Kepler (1571-1630), while he was observing a rare grouping of planets, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in October 1604, he was startled to find a stella nova or "new star" (a nova or supernova, an exploding star) which remained brilliantly visible for seventeen months. Kepler concluded that what the Chinese astronomers had recorded as novae, both in 5 and 4 BC, gave credence to his view that the Star of Bethlehem may well have been a conjunction of two phenomena: a syzygy or planetary grouping of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in early 6 BC and the explosive light discharge that surrounds the "death" of an old star. May we not suggest, then, that the so-called Star of Bethlehem could have been a grouping of planets in the direction of the sun, enabling an initiant to pass in consciousness to the sun in the stellar deeps?
When we investigate the oral and scriptural traditions of other peoples, we discover that Jesus was not the only Son of God, but that his "miraculous" birth and death, his descent "to those in Hades as well as to all in earth" (Clement of Alexandria), were experienced by many saviors. All were monogenes (only begotten), though not in the usual understanding of the phrase as the one and only Son of God, for we are all gods, sons of the divine. The splendor rests not in their uniqueness, in that each of them was one among the many who were and will in future cycles be "singly born," brought to birth alone from their own solar, divine source. All are members of that sacred community of "Sons of the Sun," Anointed Ones who periodically incarnate on earth to help us, "spirits in prison," (1 Peter 3:19) free ourselves from our self-made bonds. But it is we who must turn the eyes of our souls toward the light: there is no liberation, no salvation, except that which is self-won.
Death by violence, burial in an underground tomb, bodily resurrection and ascension into heaven: what has all this to do with us today? Should we take this procession of events as having physically happened? Or should we see in the parallel mystical experience of so many world teachers a Mystery-teaching — the ultimate initiatory ordeal that every aspirant for communion and ultimate union with his inner god must undergo? How else could they claim oneness with divinity except by offering on the cross of self all that is less than godlike, except by descent into and triumph over the underworld of earth and of former thought habits, and by resurrection from the tomb of humanhood to shine forth in godhood? And the consummation? In the tradition of sun gods and saviors, such a one returns willingly to fulfill his sacred task, so that the ideals of compassion and of spiritual mastery may once again inspire human souls to nobler ends.
How may we interpret Jesus' death which he foretold, and his betrayal by Judas? Was it a betrayal as ordinarily understood? Or is there another level of meaning to this part of the Gospel narrative? Could it be that Judas was used as an instrument to carry out what had to be, foreordained by the karma of humanity, by the karma of Judas, as well as of Jesus? Be this as it may, Jesus knew that his "time was at hand," and that the Son of man must return to the Father.
Ascending the Garden of Gethsemane with Peter, John, and James, Jesus asked his disciples to sit awhile, and he went off to pray alone. Here was a more subtle "betrayal," or rather "failure" on the part of the very ones he had selected to stand guard in his moment of greatest need. Not a conscious failure, yet it carries a poignant lesson to us today, for how often in our individual strivings do we lack the selflessness of resolve, of love, to follow through. He said to his disciples: "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me." Jesus then moved on farther and knelt, offering all that he was to his Father: "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." When he returned he found his disciples heavy with sleep. "What, could ye not watch with me one hour?" Again Jesus said to them: "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." A second time he prayed, and once more the disciples slept. Even the third time, those who had given their utmost in devotion "betrayed" their Master, their strength not being sufficient. "Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners" (Matthew 26:37-45).
Though different in externals, a telling parallel to the Gethsemane scene is found in the "Book of the Great Passing," a Buddhist Sutta giving the essentials of Buddha's teaching during the final months of his life. The Pali text narrates several conversations the Tathagata had had with Ananda, his faithful friend and disciple. He told Ananda that should he desire it, the Tathagata could "remain in the same birth for a kalpa, or for that portion of the kalpa which had yet to run." The hint was there, but it passed Ananda by. Twice more the hint was given, but still Ananda was oblivious to the momentous implication that, if the claim upon the Compassionate One was powerful enough, he could "remain during the kalpa . . . out of pity for the world, for the good and the gain and the weal of gods and men!" (Maha-Parinibbana-Sutta, ch. 3, secs 3-4, Sacred Books of the East 11:41)
Shortly thereafter Mara the Tempter — the name means "death" — approached the Tathagata, saying it was time for him to die and enter the nirvana he had renounced, for the resolve he had earlier made had been fulfilled. At that time the Tathagata had told Mara he would not die until the brethren and sisters and lay-disciples of both sexes shall have become "wise and well-trained, ready and learned, . . . [and] when others start vain doctrine, shall be able by the truth to vanquish and refute it, and so to spread the wonder-working truth abroad!" (Ibid., ch. 3, sec 7, p. 43) Since Ananda had made no call upon the Buddha to live on, the Tathagata said to Mara: "make thyself happy, the final extinction of the Tathagata shall take place before long. At the end of three months from this time the Tathagata will die!" Whereupon there "arose a mighty earthquake, awful and terrible, and the thunders of heaven burst forth" (ibid., ch. 3, secs 9-10, p. 44) — not unlike what occurred during the "crucifixion" of Jesus when, from the sixth to the ninth hour darkness was upon the land, and after he had given up his spirit "the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake . . . " (Matthew 27:51).
Only later, when Ananda had questioned the Buddha about the "mighty earthquake," did his disciple, in a flash, wake up. Only then, at the sudden realization that his beloved friend and mentor was soon to leave them, did Ananda urge the Blessed One to live on through the kalpa "for the good and the happiness of the great multitudes." Three times he pleaded thus. The reply was inevitable: "Enough now, Ananda, beseech not the Tathagata! The time for making such request is past." (Ibid., ch. 3, secs 49-50, p. 54) Had Ananda bestirred himself at least by the third time, his teacher added, his wish would have been granted. In actuality, Buddha had spoken of this possibility on many previous occasions, yet each time Ananda had let the hint go by unheeded.
This is not to suggest that had either Ananda or the disciples of Jesus grasped the significance of the divine happenings surrounding their teachers, they could have forestalled the course of destiny. Even if there is scant historic fact in the Christian and Buddhist accounts, this does not negate the psychological truths they imbody. Neither story ends "happily ever after"; nor should it, for life is a blend of good and ill, of joy and sorrow, from which we may distill a tincture of wisdom.
If we find tragedy here, it is from viewing the events at too close range. From the perspective of many lives there is neither failure nor success, only learning experiences, and in this there is comfort as well as challenge. Peter, James, and John, and Ananda too, are ourselves; we can identify with them, for their frailty is ours. How often we awake to the reality of a situation only after an experience, aware too late of an opportunity missed. Opportunities come and go for us all. Some we seize, almost by intuition, and are the gainer; others, at times important ones, we let slip through our fingers. Yet all is not lost as some part of our consciousness does register the lesson; were it otherwise, we would not wake up later, whether after a few hours or, perchance, not until the better part of our life has gone by. But wake up we do, ultimately, and this is the triumph.
In the case of Jesus, the very betrayal or failure on the part of the disciples, though quite unconscious, would seem to have been an essential requisite for the law to be fulfilled, i.e., to allow for the consummation of the supreme initiatory trial of Jesus the man, when the human soul must stand alone, without protection of disciple or friend, and win. The human soul must be born as the Christ-sun without help other than from itself, its inbuilt reserve of solar strength. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Jesus is said to have experienced this second birth, a birth of the spirit, around the time of the winter solstice.
The cryptic words of the Apostles' Creed portray the despair and triumph of the man-Jesus become Christ: "crucified, dead and buried: he descended into hell; the third day he rose from the dead: he ascended to heaven." Whether Jesus was physically crucified remains an open question. The "crucifixion" may well be a symbol, an allegory told in order to portray the Christ-spirit crucified in matter: when the material, domineering side of human nature takes precedence in a life, it crucifies the spirit.
When the Christ came, he gave of his light, of his truth, but only a few comprehended. The rest did not understand and so, as the Gospels record, Jesus was tried and sentenced by Pontius Pilate. Of the supreme moment, when Jesus on the cross of matter is forsaken by all but his own self- disciplined soul, Matthew records the following:
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? — 27:46
In the translation the significance of this Hebrew phrase, inserted in the Greek original, is obscured. In reality, we have what amounts to two cries: the one of agony, the other of exaltation. The last Hebrew word, sabachthani does not mean to forsake or abandon as the King James Version has it; on the contrary, it means to glorify, to bring peace, to raise in triumph. Yet the Greek text immediately "explains" it as "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" — which actually is a direct translation of the well-known cry of David in Psalm 22, 'Eli, 'Eli, lamah `azabthani, the final word indeed meaning "to forsake."
What is the reason for this? It has been suggested that Matthew and Mark may have intentionally confused the matter in order to conceal (and yet reveal for those having eyes to see) what was in fact a Mystery-teaching. In short, the Greek "explanation" of the Hebrew phrase, quoting from the psalm, records the anguish felt by the human part of Jesus when in utter loneliness he had to face the dread regions of the netherworld and conquer all. Conversely, the Hebrew cry as preserved in Matthew and Mark was a cry of the Christos, Jesus triumphant: "O my God, how thou hast glorified me, how thou hast brought me out of darkness into the light!" (The author is indebted to G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev, ed. pp. 38-41; also to Ralston Skinner, The Source of Measures, pp. 300-301, and "No Error" by JRS (Skinner) in H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings 9:276-9, with corroborative "Note" by HPB on p. 279)
The Christ, let us say, was crucified. He was buried in the tomb and after three days he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. That is the dogma of the Creed. It is also the story of initiation, which means the testing of the soul in great extremity to see whether it is sufficiently stalwart and selfless to undergo the most severe trials of the material world and come out whole, purified. Jesus rose from the underworld of initiation, the tomb of matter, glorified. United with the divinity within him, he ascended to his Father and became one with the universal divine force. He was no longer just a human being, having all our ordinary troubles caused by selfishness and greed. Jesus now was Christos, one "anointed" with the sacred oil, and a Son of God because the god within him had flooded the whole of his being with light.
The early Christians knew that the Christ mystery was not unique, something that had never occurred before, but was in very truth the culmination for their time of one of the most wondrous experiences possible to man. They understood that when Jesus became Christ he had successfully opened the pathway between the sun in his heart and the sun in the universe, and that the rays of the real Sun, which is a divinity, shone fully upon him: Jesus became as a sun god, in truth a "Son of the Sun."
This expression contains a profound mystical truth. It was and is used for the noblest among those whose natures have become so pure that they reflect clearly the light of the sun. In the ancient world the sun was called the Father of all, including the planets, our earth, and human beings. It was also believed that animating the sun we see in the sky is a great and shining divinity. The Romans called it Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun; the Greeks honored it as Apollo; the Phrygians as Attis (Atys). The Egyptians had their Osiris and Horus.
In the ancient world the peoples around the Mediterranean Basin held in reverence the Mystery-truth that when a man had completely conquered the base tendencies of his nature, the sun god within him had risen. We recall a verse from an old hymn by John of Damascus (675-749) which is still in use in both the Anglican and Greek Orthodox service:
And from three days' sleep in death
'Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ hath burst His prison,
And from three days' sleep in death
As a sun hath risen.
Sun god of Christendom, Christ-Jesus illumined for his time the Way that had been hallowed by a long line of saviors before him.