These teachings are, therefore, no novelties, no inventions of today, but long since stated, if not stressed; our doctrine here is the explanation of an earlier and can show the antiquity of these opinions on the testimony of Plato himself. — Plotinus, Enneads, V. i. 8
There is value in reading through the narratives of ancient peoples and their traditions which often emanate from sources obscured by the darkness of prehistory. Although these may appear to be laced with mystery and magic, we find among them astonishing similarities which intrigue us with the possibility that some may possess a lining of truth, rather than being simply metaphorical or the naive meandering of primitive imagination. Among these literary shards we may stumble across a curious phrase, an ambiguous symbol, a veiled allegory whose meaning may be illumined by comparison with other traditions — perhaps to shed light on man's early history and achievement.
Coursing through these archaic traditions we often read accounts of high civilizations, golden ages, and divine dynasties — where men and gods mingled openly, and spiritual intuitions seemed to shine more brightly. But a growing selfishness dimmed in many the lamp of understanding. There followed battles between the disciples of wisdom and factions of ignorance and folly. Nature, whose balance had been upset by the latter's aggression, responded with cataclysmic floods and upheavals wrenching into the ground nearly all evidence of human activity. Great numbers perished according to the legends, though some survived who migrated to new lands. Among their descendants lingered but the memory of bygone glory — except for a few who were said to have kept alive the sacred life-giving lore. Regarded as the most noble gift of all, this knowledge passed from mouth to ear, and was recorded in symbol, allegory, legend, and myth, that it might inspire later generations. It's interesting to note that the Greek term mythos is thought to be cognate with the Gothic maudjan meaning "to remind."
When we explore traditions whose roots developed long before our era of written history, we often find interesting parallels of ideas and events. Particularly striking are those identities found continents and cultures apart. One such correlation I stumbled across some years ago. Too specific in details to be mere coincidence, it naturally provokes any number of questions.
The first story was found in With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (pp. 227-9) by French author Alexandra David-Neel, who wrote several books on Tibetan Buddhism. In it she wrote about a contest between adepts in the yogic practice of tum-mo* the ability to produce and maintain body heat through a special kind of meditation:
Upon a frosty night, those who think themselves capable of victoriously enduring the test are led to the shore of a river or a lake. If all the streams are frozen in the region, a hole is made in the ice. A moonlight night, with a hard wind blowing, is chosen. Such nights are not rare in Tibet during the winter months.
The neophytes sit on the ground, cross-legged and naked. Sheets are dipped in the icy water, each man wraps himself in one of them and must dry it on his body. As soon as the sheet has become dry, it is again dipped in the water and placed on the novice's body to be dried as before. The operation goes on in that way until daybreak. Then he who has dried the largest number of sheets is acknowledged the winner of the competition.
*See also W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, pp. 172ff.
The winner was awarded the title repa, meaning "the cotton-clad one." Henceforth he would be recognized by the thin cotton garment he wore as his sole protection against the elements, such as was Tibet's highly revered saint, Milarepa.
Elsewhere I found another Asian story. In India over a hundred years ago, an English journalist reported his eyewitness account of the Hindu plant-growing "trick." An Indian "juggler" planted a small mango seed in a specially prepared pot of earth. He then commenced to chant over it, and within the space of several minutes the seed germinated, sprouted, and matured, producing fruit "having the perfection of size . . . and approaching ripeness, being sweetly acid" (quoted in Isis Unveiled 1:142).
Neither of the above accounts is unique, for the East is rife with stories of extraordinary phenomena. What is intriguing about them, however, is the similarity of practices described in a Hopi legend — a people's memory separated from the Orient by an ocean and a time span we can hardly estimate. In the Book of the Hopi (Viking Press, p. 39) is their account of an ancient migration following the destruction of the "Third World" by earthquake and flood:
Northward and still northward the star kept leading them until they came to a land of perpetual snow and ice. At night they burrowed into snowbanks and kept warm with the power of heat they were able to evoke. For water they planted the little jar of water they always carried; it became a spring which gushed forth water here just as it had in the dry deserts they had crossed to the south. They also carried a little bowl of earth. Into this they planted seeds of corn and melon; and as they sang over it, the seeds grew into plants and the plants bore corn and melons. Such were the powers they possessed because they were still pristinely pure on this new Fourth World. [Italics added.]
Hopi boy in ritual with the magic water jar.
It is increasingly difficult to argue against findings in archaeology and anthropology which give evidence of the skilled achievements of our "superstitious" forebears. To name only two examples, witness the refined 16,000-year-old art in Lascaux, and the Pythagorean theorem described on a 4,000-year-old Babylonian tablet. Such discoveries are proving to have wide-reaching implications in other areas of science, as well as religion and philosophy. Just one, verified and accepted, can throw related facts and theories into a fresh perspective, generating at once a few new insights and a thousand more questions.
Consider, for example, the identical phenomena recounted in the Hopi and Asian stories. If what they suggest is true — that their adepts possessed a knowledge of certain psycho-physiological and botanical processes generally unknown today, which in turn may indicates some sort of prehistorical cultural contact — how would this information alter our conceptions of human potential and the cycles of civilization? If there were advanced techniques and technologies in ancient times, why were they lost? Perhaps because of our tendency to regard the past as behind or beneath us (however true this may be geologically), we often feel that older peoples have little to teach us. In light of our growing understanding of their cultures, this is likely a false assumption. Knowledge comes as a result of exploring every horizon, whether the search be in the timeless laws of physical nature or among the shards and scripts of lost civilizations. The fruits of the future are sown in the present just as they were in the past.
Unraveling the tangled skein of archaic history, separating fact from fancy, and truth from hypothesis, is certainly no easy or publicly-rewarded task. Yet reward does come — in the disclosure of the common threads of an ageless wisdom universal to mankind, a tradition as much in the world today as it was in the past. Whether we find these strands in the legends and phenomena of the Hopi and Asian adepts, in the philosophy of Plato, or in the theosophia of the world's religions, here is a still greater reward: the discovery of what this wisdom-science-religion means in providing us with new vistas and renewed hope for the future of man.
(From Sunrise magazine, April 1973; copyright © 1973 Theosophical University Press)