The twentieth century witnessed unspeakable tyrannies of soul and body. It is as though an Armageddon were in process before our eyes, between the altruistic urgings of the heart and the selfish demands of the personal nature, between the creative energies and the destructive, the spiritual and the psychic/material. As evolving beings we either progress or retrogress, there is no standing still; since every moment we are either creators or destroyers, it is essential that periodically we are shocked into a deeper awareness of our divine purpose.
Ideas are more potent than spears or bombs for shaking us out of our lethargy, and what could have been more revolutionary than the revival of ideas long forgotten: of universal brotherhood, of the oneness of all life, of divinity rather than matter as the kinetic agency behind evolution? It is these ideas, injected into the thought-consciousness of humanity in the nineteenth century, that slowly and steadily germinated during the twentieth century with mixed results: on the one hand, arousing a fury of reaction from entrenched establishments and, on the other, finding response in the aspirations of earnest men and women of every age and background.
The awful uncertainties of the times are a blessing, in that they impel us to reexamine our thinking and motives and to come to terms with the central issues of life and death, and how best to prepare our children for the world they are inheriting. Science with its "miraculous pitcher" of marvels has confirmed our interdependence not only as a humanity but, more importantly, as participants in an ecosphere whose families of entities share in the one life flow. Yet with all our knowledge we have not discovered what we most need: how to live in harmony with ourselves and with one another. As a result, many are despondent, fearful of themselves and of the future, seriously questioning where civilization is heading.
It should not surprise us that various Fundamentalists are urging us to "believe and be saved" before it is too late: for the "perilous times" of which both Paul and Peter wrote are soon to come, when the corrupt and the covetous, the truce-breakers and despisers of all that is good, will walk the land, "the heavens will pass away with great noise, and the elements melt with fervent heat, the earth also . . . " (Cf. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 and 2 Peter 3:3-13) We would do well not to wholly discount such warnings, for no species can escape the consequences of action; certainly not we humans, who should know better than wantonly to violate natural law. Of course, since every living being in the universe is subject to birth and death, and rebirth in a new form, so likewise our present civilization, and our planet and its kingdoms of lives, will eventually disappear after fulfilling their respective life cycles.
The destruction of earth and the retreat of the gods as the human race becomes increasingly matter-bound is a recurring theme in ancient cultures. The narratives vary in externals: in one instance they might refer to an age and a people that have long since vanished or to predictions of what has not yet come to pass. At first blush, the accounts of the cataclysmic destruction of everything are terrifying — whether we ponder the cryptic verses of Nostradamus (1503-1566), the Book of Revelation, or other apocalyptic writings. But when we read further in the world's sacred literatures, we discover that the dying of the old cycle is followed in time by the emergence of the new: earth comes forth fresh and without blemish, and a new humanity arises. This is poetically foretold in the Icelandic Edda, in the prophecy of Vala, the Sibyl, who forecasts the coming of Ragnarok ("doom or return of gods"), with "sun growing dim, earth sinking, and stars falling," accompanied by fire rising high to complete the desolation. (Cf. The Masks of Odin by Elsa-Brita Titchenell, "Voluspa" (The Sibyl's Prophecy), pp. 87-100) At length, another earth rises from the waters, the eagle flies, and gods again decree peace in the land and what is to be held sacred.
A like pattern of decline, death, and renewal is seen in the discourse among Asclepius and his friends, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the "thrice-greatest." When in the course of time "all things hostile to the nature of the soul" have been committed by mankind, earth will "no longer stand unshaken, . . . heaven will not support the stars in their orbits, . . . all voices of the gods will of necessity be silenced. . . . But when all this has befallen, Asclepius, then the Master and Father, God, the first before all . . . will stay the disorder by the counterworking of his will." He will call back to the path all who have strayed, cleanse the earth of evil, now with flood, now with fire, or again, "expelling it by war and pestilence." Then in the process of ages will "God, the maker and restorer of the mighty fabric," make way for "the new birth of the Kosmos . . . a holy and awe-striking restoration of all nature." (Hermetica, trans. Walter Scott, 1:344-7, "Asclepius — III," sec 26a)
The Vishnu-Purana of ancient India graphically portrays the decline and renewal of humanity and the earth. After detailing the iniquities of mankind "until the human race approaches its annihilation" toward the close of kali yuga, our present age, it foretells the renovation that will occur when "a portion of that divine being who exists, of his own spiritual nature, in the character of Brahma, and who is the beginning and the end, and who comprehends all things, shall descend upon earth." This is Kalki, the tenth avatara or divine incarnation, who will be born in the village of Sambhala to destroy all that is false and unrighteous, and reestablish dharma, the law of truth, purity, and duty. Those whose minds will be awakened and changed by virtue of that remarkable period "shall be as the seeds of human beings, and shall give birth to a race who shall follow the laws of the Krita age (or age of purity)," known also as satya yuga (age of truth). (The Vishnu Purana, trans. H. H. Wilson, 4:224-9, bk. 4, ch. 24)
According to Brahmanical records kali yuga — lowest of the four ages, and with a life span of 432,000 years — began in 3102 BC upon the death of Krishna, the eighth avatara of Vishnu. Presuming that these time cycles are reasonably accurate, this means we have completed only a little more than 5,000 years of kali yuga, with some 427,000 years yet to run! Moreover, as kali yuga is held to contain but one-quarter of satya or truth in contrast to the four-quarters of truth present in the krita age, it looks as though humanity is on a downslide — a most discouraging prospect unless we view our present age within the larger context of the evolutionary cycle of earth. The crucial factor here is that earth and its inhabitants have progressed beyond the halfway point in their evolution; they have completed their downward thrust and, having passed the nadir, if only slightly, have begun the climb upward out of matter toward an ever more refined spirituality. Thus, kali yuga is a minor cycle of descent within a larger cycle of ascent on which we and earth have embarked; in fact, even during our present kali age there occur periods of relative spirituality.
In a letter to Allan O. Hume written in 1882, HPB's mentor KH explains that when humanity passes the "axial point," the midpoint in its septenary course, "the world teems with the results of intellectual activity and spiritual decrease"; and that it is in the latter half of the long evolutionary arc that "the spiritual Ego will begin its real struggle with body and mind to manifest its transcendental powers." He closes his long letter by asking: "Who will help in the forthcoming gigantic struggle? Who? Happy the man who helps a helping hand." (The Mahatma Letters, Letter xiv, p. 88) Who, indeed, will lend a helping hand in this contest of ages?
Many today are longing for a savior to put to rout the destroyers and restore harmony and brotherly love among us. As far back in time as legend and scripture record, practically every people has cherished the promise of a Redeemer at the end of the dark age who is to vanquish the evildoers and lead the blameless to an earth made new, a golden age when truth is honored and all life held sacred. The Christian looks to the Second Coming when the ultimate winnowing will occur; orthodox Jewry awaits the Messiah; Parsis count upon Saoshyans to overthrow Ahriman (darkness) and enthrone Ahura Mazda (light). In India similar apocalyptic events surround the avatara Kalki at the close of kali yuga; Buddhist writings describe a future Buddha, Maitreya, the "Friendly, Benevolent One," leaving the celestial regions for earth in order once again to impart the Dharma (the sacred Law) in its purity; and Tibetan legends tell of the return of the Kings of Sambhala. No two agree on the timing: Oriental peoples placing the event far in the future, while Westerners announce the coming of a Savior or World-Teacher to be practically upon us.
With our foreshortened view of human destiny, due in part to rejection of reincarnation as a valid philosophical hypothesis, it is no surprise that recent decades have seen a rise in the West of a kind of messianism, manifesting in a hysterical longing for some enlightened Personage to rise up and pull our civilization back from self-annihilation.
That teachers and guides are as necessary to our inner development as are loving parents and schoolteachers for children is self-evident, but the other half of the equation is equally relevant. Just as the growing child must be allowed to find his or her own strength, so humanity as a whole needs time and space to reach maturity through its own efforts. We are much like the adolescent who rejects the help that is available and then, feeling alienated, seeks foolish and sometimes destructive means to fill the loneliness. In consequence, while there is currently an extraordinary yearning for higher guidance, there is also an astonishing lack of discrimination as to what is sound and what is spurious in matters of the spirit.
Today, the winds of Narada, agent of karma, are toppling once seemingly impregnable barriers to make way for long-needed changes in individual and national destinies. (Cf. G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 689-95) Every nation, race, and people, indeed every human being over the globe, is subject to the bipolar force of Narada's Siva-energy which destroys that it may rebuild. Upheavals of lesser and greater magnitude occur cyclically to insure the viability of spirit through shedding and renewal of forms. This interplay between light and shadow will continue as long as we are imbodied entities. But there are cycles within cycles, and the growth patterns of humanity reveal long periods of seeming quiescence, punctuated by apparently sudden changes. When such a "moment" of destiny has matured, we may have an influx of a new type of humanity on the scene, often accompanied by global disturbances of a physical as well as psychological character.
In minor degree the waning of the Piscean and the dawning of the Aquarian age is such a nodal point, where the struggle between the old and the new is joined. As we are at the intersection of two major astronomical cycles and, possibly, of still longer ones as well, we wonder whether the convergence of these several cycles produces unusually strong "tidal" effects that could allow a huge wave of egos to seek incarnation at this time. Whether the incoming tide brings a resurgence of spiritual values, or an even darker period of human suffering, will depend largely upon the present and coming generations. We humans, individually and collectively as planetary citizens, are being impelled to wake up and reexamine our thinking and behavior; many are turning inward for answers, questioning motives and the why and how of existence.
Wherever we look, we observe the forces of progress and of retrogression vying for dominion of minds and souls. When viewed in isolation this is cause for real concern, but when seen as symptomatic of a much needed harrowing process, we have grounds for hope that the new seeding will germinate in fertile soil. Just as cyclic renewal of forms occurs in every kingdom so that the new flowering can take place, so fresh and dynamic insights into the role and destiny of man and of our cosmic parent can rejuvenate our thought-structures.
For those who have touched the theosophic stream in former lives, but who as yet may be unaware of the responsibility this imposes, such could be the moment of awakening the higher self is waiting for — when once again we inwardly connect up with ourselves and resume the unending quest. From then on our lives take on a new dimension: no longer content to drift, the inner struggle intensifies between our Ariadne self which would lead us out of the maze of material interests, and our personal self which for a time tries to ignore its guidance. But our Ariadne will never let us quite forget — it cannot, for we are bound to it irrevocably. It is none other than our sutratman, the "thread of radiance" that unites us to our god-self. More wondrous still, it also links us to the god-self or atman of every human being who has ever lived on earth — a cosmic oneness that is beyond the power of man, god, or demon to annihilate.
Not everyone, however, is able to respond constructively to the tumult of change. Many are baffled and, as a result, veer between the secure dogmas of the past and every avant-garde notion that captures their fancy. Where is the saving middle way that will steadily enhance the transmutation process from dependence on external guidance to reliance on the savior within?
It would be a pitiless universe had humanity to wait many thousands of years for the golden age to return before receiving help. Could we see our human evolution from the origins of this earth cycle as in a panorama, we would know that a hierarchy of Compassionate Ones keeps a protective watch over all of earth's children. Aside from their cyclical seeding of the world consciousness with as much of cosmic truth as humanity's karma will permit, periodically they send one or more of their number to incarnate among mankind and enjoin nations and races to live in harmony, order, and peace one with another. To establish a universal brotherhood on earth is their continuing dream. Nor is it an impossible dream by virtue of our common origin in divinity — on this basis we are brothers.
By the law of magnetic attraction, when the call from awakening minds and hearts is powerful enough a response is forthcoming. "Ask, and it shall be given you . . . " But before "asking" too earnestly — wishes do have an uncomfortable way of coming true — perhaps we should ask ourselves some questions: Do we merit the help we seek? Have we done all we can and should do to right the wrongs in our own natures and in the larger arena of world relationships? Further, is our intuition sensitive enough to recognize a true messenger or teacher? Conversely, what certainty is there that a person is what he claims to be, and that his teachings accord with nature and with the primeval truths impressed upon our inmost essence when humanity was young? False prophets are ever present, while those who are genuine often are maligned; it may be only after one of them has left the earth scene that we intuit a great soul has lived among us. Surely a high degree of perception, purity of aspiration, and plain common sense are required.
Out-and-out charlatans represent no lasting threat, for they are spotted fairly soon. It is charismatic figures with their persuasive medley of half-truths who pose the greatest test for their followers — and for themselves. Many of them probably start out with good intent, to bring a message of hope to the millions who are hungering for something more than the tight orthodoxy of credal faiths. A few of them, perhaps after some peak experience or vision, are convinced they have received a "call." This may or may not be the case. Where aspiration is strong and one-pointed, an individual may for an instant open a channel to the light within and undergo a temporary fusion of soul with his higher self. For him the vision is real. The question is: Has there been a corresponding purification of character, a parallel disciplining and control of the passional and mental nature to sustain the vision? Unless he has ruthlessly striven to denude himself of self-pride and greed, the momentary opening to the inner worlds leaves him vulnerable to alien forces from the lower astral realms which, when not controlled by the higher will, may turn demonic.
We recall an astute observation made by William Law (1686-1761), theosopher, Christian divine, and a profound student of the writings of Jakob Boehme:
Would you know . . . whence it is, that so many false Spirits have appeared in the World, who have deceived themselves and others with false Fire, and false Light, laying Claim to Inspirations, Illuminations, and Openings of the Divine Life, pretending to do Wonders under extraordinary Calls from God? It is this; they have turned to God without turning from themselves; would be alive in God, before they were dead to their own Nature . . .
Now Religion in the Hands of Self, or corrupt Nature, serves only to discover Vices of a worse kind, than in Nature left to itself. — William Law, The Spirit of Prayer: or The Soul Rising out of the Vanity of Time, into the Riches of Eternity, Prayer 2.1-32; cf. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, p. 243.
Note the phrase: "they have turned to God without turning from themselves." Human nature hasn't changed much over the centuries! How many of those, eager for transformative experiences of a higher order, are willing to take the first steps in self-discipline, much less endure long and arduous training and testing of integrity and motive over lifetimes? "Discipline precedes the Mysteries" is an axiom of proven validity.
It has happened in historic times and is happening today that one or another self-proclaimed guru comes to believe that he is infallible: is he not God-sent, an apostle of the Messiah, or a bearer of messages direct from the Lord Maitreya? His or her followers are also culpable in part, for continuous and unthinking adulation can act as an intoxicant. So insidious is the poison of flattery that all too soon the would-be teacher convinces both himself and his devotees that he is absolved from the strict morality required of others: whatever transgression of the ethical code he may incur becomes a "holy act" and thus sanctified. There is no way to measure the tragic consequences of such betrayal — on himself and on those who unstintingly give of their devotion and trust.
Obviously, perfection is neither possible nor expected, and it is both presumptuous and unfair to judge harshly those who earnestly strive to give spiritual and moral aid to their fellow humans. Nevertheless, we have the right and duty to expect of those who profess to teach, that words of truth and compassion are authenticated by honorable and altruistic thinking and doing. What all of us need is a clearer knowledge of ourselves plus a healthy dose of skepticism — not cynicism, but intelligent skepticism. The word is apt, from the Greek skeptikos, "thoughtful, reflective." We need to be reminded that the essence of our being is immortal and that each of us has not only the inborn capacity and the will but also the obligation to "save" ourselves — that is, to liberate our souls from the fetters of selfish desire.
The cyclic appearance of savior figures is to remind us of our divine possibilities, not to deprive us of our urge to grow and become as they are. We can begin now by jettisoning from our nature all that is extraneous and less than we esteem in human behavior. There is no call for exaggerated physical or mental austerities: practice of the ancient and universally honored precepts — call them commandments, beatitudes, paramitas, or virtues — is our open sesame to the future. In spite of the pull toward material concerns in kali yuga's descending cycle, we do not have to be downtending in our thinking or aspiration. The history of mankind from the earliest era confirms that in every age, whether one of spiritual clarity and upward reach or one of spiritual darkness and downward bent, pioneers are quietly at work, forward-thinking men and women who keep alive the fires of aspiration. The stronger the pull matterwards, the more powerfully they swim against it in order to produce the needed countercurrent.
Patently, we are in the midst of a critical period where the light energies are in direct contest with the dark forces — not only on the national and international scene, but within our own natures. Unless we begin now, individually and collectively, to rely on our own inner strength, we will have little to draw upon in future crises. This isn't the time to lean on great leaders; it isn't the time to wait for a messenger. If we feel that the odds are overwhelmingly against our steadfast efforts to hold aloft the torch of hope, let us recall Mother Teresa. When asked how she could bear up under the enormity of suffering she witnessed daily, without any possibility of her stemming the tide appreciably, she replied: "One and one and one: I look only at the child or the old man or woman I am tending; if I thought of the millions and millions who need my help I could do nothing."
It seems to me that every human being has within him the power to do what is required: privately and unnoticed to follow the lead of his higher self. But we have to persevere in this practice; above all, we have to trust unreservedly in the potency of our inner light to illumine our lives. If each one of us steadfastly heeds its guidance, in time we will be come an imbodiment of compassion, understanding, knowledge, and helpfulness — and yet, paradoxically, we will have achieved the greatest boon of all, we will have become as "nothing in the eyes of the world." In this manner will we strengthen the light-impulses that are gaining in number and momentum, and by so much fortify the compassionate labors of those who work unceasingly for all nations and for the unborn and who are, even now, readying the way for the dawn of a brighter age.