[Reprinted from the Dublin University Review, May 1886 by Permission of the Author.
It is difficult to break down the Chinese wall of misconceptions with which all new movements of thought become more or less completely surrounded. The assimilation by the public mind of ideas which lie outside its mechanically-regulated every-day life is a slow process, which the vigour of the constitution does not justify. For all movements, which possess any vitality at all, always provoke to an unusual degree of activity the imaginative faculties of their opponents. More or less fantastic caricatures of the aims and methods of a struggling movement are generated by an unconscious process of invention, fathered upon the movement, and then knocked down with solemn pomposity. At the end of the achievement, when the invader of orthodox indolence and respectable indifference is found to gain ground in the midst of the dust-storm of misrepresentations, a wondering sneer is directed against personalities who have not had the decency and good sense to die at the command of their antagonists. The Theosophical movement has proved no exception to this general rule. Oppositions against it are generally but attempts to remove this disturber of established ease by finding some excuse for ignoring its existence. False issues are raised in every direction, and a candid examination of the truths that Theosophy embodies is evaded in the confusion. It is a profitless task to hunt the brood of Error which, like the giants of Norse folk-lore, sally forth at night to slay and devour, but melt into thin air when surprised by a ray of sunlight. Kicking at nothing is an exhausting process. Unmindful of this, many, in the words of the author of Religio Medici, have "rashly charged the troops of Error, and remained as trophies unto the enemies." It is therefore proposed to set forth a "plain, unvarnished" statement of what Theosophy really is, and of the work in which the Theosophical Society is engaged, and leave the decision to the common sense of the reader. The transcendental metaphysics of Theosophy will be but slightly touched upon here. For fuller information the inquirer is referred to sources indicated by the publications of the Theosophical Society and the writings of the Theosophists of the day.
What, then, is Theosophy? Numberless are the misconceptions to which the word has given rise. Etymology does not throw any great light on it. The interpretation of "God-wisdom" can be spread over a very large area. Without following the history of the word, it may be stated that the chief exponents of the present revival of Theosophy take it to mean Wisdom-religion. Their interpretation, while open to no great philological objection, is sufficiently precise for all literary purposes. Theosophy from this standpoint is synonymous with Truth — the Truth that has been clothed in various garbs of religion; it also implies that this Truth is attainable by a natural development of wisdom, without the intervention of supernatural means. Thus it will be seen that Theosophy does not attach infallibility to any particular system of revelation, but maintains that under suitable conditions Truth reveals itself to every individual. The sun shines equally on all; the crystal reflects it; the clod of earth does not. Yet Theosophy sets great value on all systems of revelation, looking upon them as finger-posts which indicate the direction in which Truth is to be sought, although it declines to accept them as invitations to surrender personal inquiry. This tenet of Theosophy is founded upon the consideration that Truth is the result of real experience, and does not consist in the transfer of intellectual symbols from one person to another. To speak about Truth is one thing, and to perceive it is quite another. It is a fact of common experience that the most accurate and elaborate description of, say, a flower is by no means an efficient substitute for a visual contact with it, although the description has an abundant value of its own. Hence individual consciousness is consistently upheld as the only criterion of Truth, but this consciousness derives material help in its development and expansion by the study of the experiences of others. Thus Theosophy teaches that personal exertion is the only means by which progress can be achieved. But in the effort for growth the ultimate unity of consciousness must not be ignored. Individuals are not distinct crystals, placed side by side, but the varied manifestations of one unchanging universal consciousness. As light from one single source produces the appearance of different lights by reflection from a number of surfaces, so this universal consciousness, remaining itself unchanged, produces endless individualities, which in the course of their evolution reach perfection by recognising this essential unity. According to Theosophical thinkers this doctrine forms the fundamental truth upon which all religions are based; it is the final consummation of all philosophical thought and the crowning experience of all practical mysticism.
The search for this truth, and the practical realization of it are not considered as mere gratification of intellectual curiosity, but as the very summun bonum of evolutionary progress. It is the Nirvana of the Buddhists, the Moksha of the Brahmins, and not very different from the Beatific Vision of the Christians. When this condition, or rather want of condition, is realized in consciousness, pain is forever extinguished. Nirvana is by no means the annihilation of consciousness, but its rest in the infinite plenitude of being. Needless to discuss the Nihilist view of Buddhism which some scholars of ability have brought forward; suffice it to say, that the Theosophists on this point share the responsibility of their opinion with many names of great eminence. Nirvana is the extinction of all pain because, being the ultimate unity of all being, it cannot be the playground of those contending forces which alone produce pain.
Proceeding upon this basis, the essential features of Theosophy can be thrown into relief by determining its relations to Religion and Science. As the Science of Religion, it looks upon the different systems of faith as so many languages seeking to express the truth about man, his origin, nature, and destiny, as well as his relations to the surrounding world of objects. But, as a word or phrase is nothing but a sound in the absence of experience of the object connoted, so the proper comprehension of religious symbology can be acquired only by realizing the truths that underlie it. From the Theosophic standpoint the different systems of religion appear as like various forms evolved by the peculiarities of time, place, and other special causes, to embody the bodiless truth.
It is necessary to guard against a misconception which may arise here. Theosophy is not eclecticism, which is a mosaic, while Wisdom-Religion is an organic whole. Theosophy is like an abstract mathematical formula of which each religion is a particular application. It does not select bits from all religions and piece them together according to some fanciful standard of symmetry. But being the inner truth itself, Theosophy regards religions as various descriptions of that truth. It will no more recognise antagonism between religions than the linguist will condemn the description of the same thing in different languages because of peculiarities of idiom and grammar. Theosophy is not hostile to any religion, but is bound, in the interest of truth, to oppose the tyranny of ecclesiastical forms on individuals. Humanity, in the course of its evolution, produces individuals who outstrip the generality in the realization of truth, and are thus enabled to perceive the capabilities of the truth to be manifested within a certain period of time. To help the masses struggling blindly for the light of truth, these teachers of mankind construct a symbology of words and emblems to represent the truth. But, as acquisition of wisdom is a change in the quality of the consciousness of the acquirer, and not merely a surface expansion of it, the symbology, though eminently useful, is not in itself spiritual knowledge, and can never be converted into it except when "inwardly digested." The physical process of digestion supplies a striking analogy in this matter. Food, assimilated by different organisms, follows their original differences. Spiritual food, on assimilation, partakes of the peculiarities of the individual, and two individuals cannot be exactly identical, whether physically or otherwise. A contrary supposition would violate the lex parsimoniae, in nature. Consequently, Theosophy is the uncompromising supporter of the freedom of individual conscience. On the other hand, it condemns a selfish desire for self-development as wrong, on account of its violation of the essential unity of being. One of the greatest Theosophists of the world, Gautama Buddha, declared, "Let the sins of the Kali Yuga (1) fall upon me, and let the world be redeemed." This noble saying found an echo in the Christian Apostle, who would be anathema from Christ if he could save the world thereby.
Nor has Theosophy any antagonism to the scientific spirit. Claiming to be the religion of Truth, it must show itself to be the most exact of all exact sciences. According to it truth cannot be dissociated from real experience; the mere intellectual form of it can never be the truth any more than the word man can be the human being. It opposes the dogmatisms of science which deny independent reality to facts of mental experience because of their eminently unscientific character. If there be no operation of thought matter itself will disappear. The contrary of this — existence of matter without relation to a conscious knower — has never been experienced. Therefore matter and consciousness are both eternal or neither. Further, it rejects the mechanical theory of the universe on account of its unreasonableness. If consciousness is derivable from unconsciousness, a fundamental law of reason becomes stultified. Unconsciousness is the negation of consciousness, and therefore an affirmation of the absence of all relations to consciousness is its essential property. How, then, can it be related to consciousness so as to produce it? If the atoms themselves are considered conscious the difficulty is not removed. For consciousness must be associated with the notion of I, and if this egoism is to be postulated for each atom it is inexplicable how a man, composed of myriads of atoms, possesses yet a single indivisible notion of I. It is clear therefore that there is in nature a principle of consciousness whose units are not atoms but individualities, and as the principle is eternal its units must also be so. For the ocean cannot be salt unless the quality of saltness inhered in every one of its drops. Theosophy for these, among other reasons, holds against materialism that the individuality in man is immortal. In this, however, it does not maintain that the present body, emotion or thought of a man will as such abide forever, but that the unit of consciousness which is now manifested as the man, will never undergo any change in essence. For change, independent of consciousness, is unthinkable. It is in fact the unchangeableness of consciousness that by comparison renders the conception of change a reality. In ordinary language no doubt such phrases as the "growth and development of consciousness" are in use, but strictly speaking it is the basis in which the consciousness inheres that changes, the phrases in question being of the same character as those which ascribe motion to the sun in relation to the earth. Moreover, if one unit of consciousness were to change in essence, that is, become annihilated, the same liability must attach to all other units, and we shall be driven to hold that the principle of consciousness in nature is destructible, while matter which cannot exist in its absence is indestructible. From the indestructibility of individual consciousness, and its relations to matter, two important deductions follow. First, that this relation, which is perpetually changing, changes according to a definite law. The products of the change are bound each to each in a definite way. What is now is not wholly unrelated to what was before. This is a matter of experience, and in fact experience is based upon it. Without the law of causation experience would be impossible, on whatever plane we take experience — mental or physical. Thus by the application of the law of causation to our being, it follows that the experience of pleasure and pain in the present must be the necessary consequence of causes generated in the past. A contention may here be raised that it is a fact of experience that many sufferings and enjoyments come to us of which we are not conscious of having generated the causes. But it is without any real force. What connection is there between our consciousness of a cause and its power to produce effect? If we receive in the system malarious germs, the disease is not prevented because we were unconscious of the reception. Whatever you sow the same you reap, whether you are conscious of the sowing or not. The law of causation, thus applied to personal experience of suffering and enjoyment, is called by the Brahmins and Buddhists the Law of Karma.
The second deduction hinges on to the first and forms with it a harmonious whole. If the individual consciousness is immortal, and its experiences are governed by the Law of Karma, then it follows that so long as all causes, capable of producing effects on the present plane of life, are not exhausted, and the generation of similar causes is not stopped, the individual consciousness will remain connected with the experience of earthly-existence. Thus the ego successively incarnates itself on this earth until it has collected all experiences that life on this planet can offer. The doctrine of reincarnation is taught by all religions of the world, Christianity not excepted. In the Gospel of St. Matthew it is declared in no uncertain tone that John the Baptist was the incarnation of Elias (chap xvii. 12, 13). It is not intended fully to discuss the scientific and metaphysical bases of the doctrine of reincarnation, as the subject has been adequately dealt with in a recent Theosophical publication. (2) But it will not be out of place to consider the ethical objection which is so frequently brought forward against the doctrine. Is it just that a person should experience pleasure or pain for acts clone in a previous life of which no recollection is preserved? The argument thus implied is based upon the confusion of the two different meanings of the word justice as applied to the regulation of human affairs, and to the operation of natural laws. Human beings are admittedly imperfect in knowledge, and it is required for the well-being of society that all its members should feel confident that they are not liable to arbitrary punishment. For this reason it is necessary that before inflicting punishment the grounds for it should be disclosed. But justice, as affecting the operation of natural laws, is a totally different thing. The workings of nature being invariably governed by the law of Causation are not amenable to conditions which depend upon admitted inability to apply that law without failure. The moral amelioration, which it is fancied that a knowledge of the precise cause of our sufferings would produce, is more than compensated for by the numberless incentives to good, which gratitude and other similar motives supply.
The teachings of Theosophy from the standpoint of common sense can be briefly summed up thus: —
1. That there is a principle of consciousness in man which is immortal.
2. That this principle is manifested in successive incarnations on earth.
3. That the experiences of the different incarnations are strictly governed by the law of causation.
4. That as each individual man is the result of a distinct causal necessity in nature, it is not wise for one man to dominate the life and action of another, no matter what their relative development may be. On the other hand it is of paramount importance that each individual should ceaselessly work for the attainment of the highest ideal that he is capable of conceiving. Otherwise, pain will arise from the opposition of the real and the ideal. Be as perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.
5. That for the above reasons it is wise and just to practise the most ungrudging toleration towards all our fellow-creatures.
6. That as absolute unity of all nature subsists forever, all self-centred actions are bound to end in pain to the actor on account of their opposition to this fact. The foundation of morals must therefore lie in the feeling of Universal Brotherhood of Man.
7. That the harmony of the unit with the whole is the only condition which can remove all pain, and as each individual represents a distinct causal operation of nature, this harmony is attainable only through the individual's own exertions.
The Theosophical Society is an organization having for its object the study of truth upon the most unsectarian basis, and as a result of such study it believes that the truths enumerated above are, if generally accepted, calculated greatly to benefit the age. It is necessary, however, to add that there are many members in the Society, earnest in the pursuit of truth, who are not prepared to subscribe to all these doctrines without further thought and study; but all are agreed as to the ethical principles involved therein. The chief aim of the Theosophical Society is "to form the nucleus of a universal Brotherhood of mankind without distinction of race, color or creed." The basis of brotherhood, which the Theosophical Society considers scientific has already been adverted to. The Theosophic brotherhood does not limit the freedom of individual development. It requires nothing from its members but a desire to recognise the unity of the human family as a natural fact which cannot be ignored with impunity, and a living conscious feeling of which is sure to lead to the highest development of the individual.
The Theosophical Society is convinced that the most efficacious means for the study of truth is furnished by the ancient religious and philosophical systems of the world, as they are free from the disturbing influences by which contemporary forms are surrounded. The Society therefore earnestly labours to promote an appreciative study of Eastern philosophy, built up by generations of Theosophists, as affording easy access to the Wisdom-Religion of the world.
Further, the Society seeks to combat materialism by the investigation of abnormal phenomena which afford a practical demonstration of the existence of a Psyche in man and to lead to a proper comprehension of the laws which underlie those phenomena. Theosophists do not believe in supernaturalism, and discard the notion of miracles as involving an unreasonable limitation of the possibilities of nature. The views of the leading Theosophists with regard to this subject are to be found very ably expounded in Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled, and Mr. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism. All Theosophists, whether in perfect agreement with these views or not, look upon them as opening immense vistas of thought on subjects which are as important as they are neglected.
In conclusion, it is to be clearly stated that the Theosophical Society is composed of a body of earnest students and inquirers, and not of dogmatic teachers. But naturally a large number of members hold convictions in common on many points. Yet in each case the final authority comes from no external source but from within.
"There is no religion higher than Truth," is the motto of the Society.
1. I.e., The present age of spiritual blindness (return to text)
2. See "Transactions of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society, " No. 5. (return to text)
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