When this vast surrounding universe burst into being, "when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy," there was existence, sound, motion, awareness. And so there is today.
Many traditions picture the cosmos as a tree of life rooted in the ground of divine all-being, whose trunk traverses all the planes of space and whose branches support systems of stars and other living spheres. Every kind of substance is represented from the most tenuous breath of spirit to the grossest kind of matter.
As components of one world within a greater world, we humans too are trees of life and our faculties and properties are those that belong to that greater world tree. Our bodies consist of the stuff of the planet we live on and contain every kind of chemical it can furnish. Our physical vitality and animal magnetism are likewise properties of the earth and revert to it when we depart at death. So are our peculiar design and structure that have been long developing and adapting to us and to our terrestrial environment in order to be just right for our needs. What part, then, do we play in the scheme of things? Do we in fact have a purely human function to fulfill in the cosmos?
The human is a very complex being, just how complex we seldom stop to consider. Even the physical form contains a vastly intricate network of circulatory, sensory, voluntary, and involuntary activities. Yet this organism reflects in the simplest way possible the even more disparate functions of the soul. When we begin to study our inner being we are faced with questions far more intricate than those which pertain to the corporeal person. How, for instance, do we perceive beauty, or what intangible contact produces instant response to another's pain? What brings about the transport of the mind by cogent reasoning, or soothes our sensibilities with silence? Religions speak of the soul, but do not explain what it is; as for spirit, this mystery has long been tacitly ignored in the West for lack of a satisfactory definition. Yet there are systems of thought that include both and many that describe a human being in even greater detail.
In the Vedanta of India the human constitution is described as consisting of a number of kosas or sheaths surrounding the individualized eternal, universal Self. These five veils are formed respectively of ananda, bliss; of vijnana, discerning intelligence; of manas, mind; of prana, life-breath, and of anna, food. They correspond to the five natures of the universe which evolved forth successively from the highest: aether, air, fire, water, and earth. Each of these "elements" (states of matter) brought about from its most substantial part one of the sense perceptions: from aether came forth hearing; from breath (air) came the power of touch; from fire seeing, from water taste, and from earth was born the sense of smell. Other ways of describing the compound human being are used in other systems of thought. Ancient Norse mythology speaks of the human faculties as supplied by gods. Much as the biblical Adam is created in the image of the elohim, so the Norse humans, being "found on the earth, of little power," were endowed by a trinity of gods with their own divine qualities. Odin, Allfather, gives to the human trees of life his breath, the spirit that sustains all existence. His two brother-gods, Honer and Lodur, furnish respectively mind or discernment, and bloodline (genetic heredity) and distinctness — the unique identity that marks each being. The physical properties — vitality, shape, and bodily structure — they already had, for these belong to the sphere where embodiment takes place.
The theosophic teachings use a similar sevenfold classification of "principles": these may be enumerated as
1) the divine monad, which is one with the universal divine essence, inseparable from that reality. From this emanates
2) the spiritual or higher self, our "guardian angel"; this is the source of true intuition and inspiration. Together these two principles are the spirit which gives us our claim to immortality. Spirit informs
3) the purely human part of us, the dual mind, which receives inspiration from the higher self, and also occupies itself with the concerns of this mundane world. It may be related to the interests it deals with; on one hand pure science, knowledge, and understanding based on empathy; on the other applied technology, expediency which is often self-serving. The higher mind receives its impulses from the spirit, which is impersonal and unattached to matter; the lower, the ego of familiar attachments, is strongly influenced by
4) ambition, passions, desires, appetites, will. It is the motive power in our constitution and is what drives us to perform the acts of living. Though often addressed to personal aims, desire is also the strength of aspiration and the yearning for betterment. In the beautiful biblical tale of the event in the Garden of Gethsemane, the will invoked was that pertaining to the Christ within the man, while the personal will was subservient to its demands. The mind and desire principles combine as the person we know — John Doe or Mary Roe — with all the good and bad tendencies we recognize because we have them too. This personality possesses
5) the physical vitality which animates the body throughout its sojourn on the earth, working through
6) the astral body, which is the model on which the physical is shaped, the abode of physical awareness and sensations. Together with
7) the physical organism, these last three form the triple carrier of life, our contact with planet earth; they are the mortal part of us.
Each of the seven principles enumerated in theosophy is regarded as sevenfold, having implicit in it the qualities more fully expressed by the other six. This can be observed in the mixed emotions we so often experience, and in the conflicting motives and cross purposes of human behavior which occur because each separate characteristic also partakes of all the others. This is why the protean human consciousness is so flexible and versatile.
Other systems of thought define the various characteristics of human nature in other ways: most definitions are more precise than the simple triune "body-soul-spirit." Even this classification, however, provides an important feature which bears contemplation: taking our cue from the more complete systems it becomes evident that the three aspects of a human being undergo different experiences and have different destinies. The physical, we know, lasts only little longer than its final heartbeat and ultimate spark of brain activity; that is when the tenant departs, withdrawn from earth-life, and leaves its tenement — full of life indeed, but no longer cohering under the magnetic command of the ego. Meanwhile, freed from its bond that held it to the earth, the soul pursues the course it has prepared for itself, be it base or supernal. Tangled in the web of terrestrial experience, some portions of the soul die with the body; others, allied with deathless spirit, gain a greater life. In addition there is that in us which dwells eternally in spheres too lofty for our ordinary soul to know. When it is said that we are gods, this godborn self is meant; when it is said that man is mortal, the evanescent form of earth is truly so. But we are not so simply made that it can be unequivocally stated that a soul is either mortal or immortal. What we know as our self hovers between the eternal and the momentary, between our source — dimensionless consciousness — and our compound earthly structure; we serve the one we choose, god or shadow, and are served in turn by its reality, be it brief or seemingly everlasting.
Just as the earth furnishes our terrestrial body with its chemical elements, vitality, and shape, so do we borrow nature's more ethereal substances to build the soul that animates the form and use these contacts to give us an understanding of the world we live in. They enable us to perceive and manipulate materials, to think about worldly things and make practical decisions. Still, these faculties are a mere feeble echo of the spirit of us, our inner reality which is the unconditionally immortal essence — the first sublime radiance of divinity — in nature as in human nature.
Is the universe that surrounds us, wherein we live and move and have our whole existence, a plain material construction without any qualities other than those that can be physically measured? If so, what are we doing here? Out from the primordial singularity, the cosmic dimensionless point — known to Hindu philosophy as Brahman, "the expanding," and to modern astrophysics as the big bang — everything that exists in our cosmic system came into being. That must include the faculties on which we humans pride ourselves: intelligence, artistry, creativity, inspiration, the ability to empathize in another's feelings, to imagine — make images in our mind's eye — and to express the vision we perceive. To suppose that we possess these faculties without their being present in the cosmos is absurd. We are present in the cosmos. What grandiose perception may belong to greater spheres of life is still beyond our imaginings, but is there any reason why our future should not hold such prospects as now may seem fantastic? And further, with our insights and human genius, do we not even now have a duty toward some unperceived divine scheme which would be thwarted without us? We need to consider more than forms and appearances when we seek our place in the universal whole if we are to learn what task we humans are to perform within a cosmos or orderly universe. As we find correspondences between our own small persons and the greater sphere, we may assume that we are indispensable — an intrinsic part of cosmic life, ingrained in its essence as our own thoughts and feelings, our joys and sorrows, our talents and strengths are ingrained in us. The part we play may seem insignificant but cannot be played by any other being. Each one is unique and possesses a combination of qualities that is not exactly replicated anywhere, however similar we may seem. What is more significant, we know this. We are aware of our uniqueness; whether we like or downgrade ourselves, we are sole knowers of our souls and none can ever take from us the responsibility we bear for the thoughts, the words, the actions we originate by our desires and our wills. It is our truly human prerogative to know ourselves.
The universe is born within some grander sphere no doubt; our solar system is a part of it, our planet and the others form its organs, each one unique, yet all interacting to perform the functions required of organs in such an organism. Throughout its spaces flow the lives of its constitution, each one carrying out its task — tasks comparable to those that blood and nerves and lymph perform in ours, and bearing within them powers and faculties of soul and mind and spirit. As beats the solar heart with many pulses and as it vibrates like a ringing bell in space, its vital streams of lives pour forth in rhythmic cadence through the crystal globes of unseen matter. Its various principles give rise to ours: where we have thought, we reflect in tiny proportion the mind-force of the sun; where we feel joy, enthusiasm, love, we mirror in the small the mighty power of gods that bring worlds into being and reabsorb them replete with knowing and with ever larger vision.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)