It is my pleasure to present this paper on theosophy — not that I am in any way more knowledgeable than others in this matter, but that the absence of dogmatism and rigidity in theosophy makes it necessary and useful for students all the world over to be tolerant and accommodating enough to share with one another certain fundamental ideas and principles on this vast subject.
Simply defined, theosophia or "god-wisdom" is the knowledge of things divine concerning the cosmos and man as the expression of divinity, attainable through direct spiritual perception or by study and philosophic reflection, or by a combination of mind and intuition. It has existed since immemorial time and offers us a theory of nature and of life which is founded upon knowledge acquired by sages of the past. Its highest students claim that this knowledge is not imagined or inferred, but is a knowledge of nature's facts seen and known by those who are willing to undergo the discipline and training requisite for seeing and knowing. As the oldest tradition of human wisdom, theosophy has been expressed in different ages by such great and noble souls as Krishna and Buddha, Zarathustra or Zoroaster, and Jesus. Following these teachers, lesser voices have supported its central tenet, namely immortality of the spirit-soul through cyclic reimbodiment. Great minds such as Bruno, van Helmont, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Shelley, Kipling, Masefield, Emerson, and Whitman, to name but a few, have all upheld the doctrine of reincarnation. Its full philosophical import was presented to the West by H. P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875.
It is fitting to stress that theosophy is not a faith or a system of beliefs, for faiths may be changed; but, being knowledge of natural law which each person can make his or her own, it is not dependent on dogma or revelation that must be believed on pain of condemnation. Neither H. P. Blavatsky nor her teachers ever demanded the acceptance of theosophy. They pointed out its principles and their applications. True enough, theosophy makes certain statements, outlines certain philosophical ideas, but not as dogma to be believed without question or scientific investigation — the purpose or objective of theosophy being to teach man what he is through showing him the necessity of knowing for himself, and becoming his own authority. Conversely, that religion which, depending solely on an assumed revelation, turns away from the laws that govern us, is nothing but devolution, a foe to progress, and an obstacle in the way of man's evolutionary advancement.
At first sight theosophy may seem to embrace religion alone, but it does not neglect science or philosophy. We may call it the science of sciences, for it encompasses every department of nature, visible and invisible. Embracing both the scientific and the religious, theosophy may be called a scientific religion and a religious science. It is also philosophy for it concerns itself with the unchanging causes behind the ever-changing appearances. No new ethics are presented by theosophy, as it is held that right ethics are forever the same and that in its doctrines are to be found the philosophical and reasonable bases for ethics and the natural expression of them in daily practice.
What are its teachings? Theosophy is best explained by reference to three great principles or fundamental ideas which underlie all life, as well as every religion and every philosophy that ever has been or ever will be. Applied to humanity, they may be briefly named: firstly, the Self as reality in man; secondly, the law of rhythmic or cyclic progression as the process by which man evolves, both in form and in soul; thirdly, evolution as the design or pattern of life in terms of meaning and purpose.
Now, to the first fundamental idea, the Self or source of Being: the great theosophists both ancient and modern have recorded that there is one infinite Principle which is the cause of all that was, is, and ever shall be. Thus this causal Self, the only true deity, can be absent from no point in Space, and we are inseparable from it. Each one is a ray from and one with that absolute Principle: this one realization immediately sets our minds in order. Behind all perceiving and knowing and experiencing is the one, undeniable Self. The power in us to perceive, to know, to experience, apart from anything that is seen, known, or experienced, the power of every being, is the one Self, the one Consciousness shared by all alike. Herein lies the true basis of universal brotherhood among all peoples and nations and the unifying bond of all beings both above and below man.
Now to the second fundamental idea: that is the universal law of recurring cycles or periodic death and renewal in nature, and her constant tendency to restore equilibrium. Applied to man's moral life this second great principle is observable as karma, or cause and effect, and reincarnation. Karma, the doctrine of responsibility, means that whatever a man sows he shall also reap; it is the law of ethical causation, the cause of birth and rebirth. Simply stated, karma is effect growing from cause, reaction for every action, exact result for every thought and act. Since theosophy views the universe as an intelligent whole, every motion in the universe is an action leading to results which themselves may become causes for further results. We are all reaping what we have sown, individually and collectively. While we may believe we act alone, always our thoughts and deeds affect others for good or ill, and we get the necessary reaction from the causes set in motion by ourselves. This presents to us the idea of absolute justice, in accordance with which each being receives, morally and physically, exactly what he gives.
The other aspect of the law of cycles, and indissolubly connected with karma, is reincarnation. This means that man as a thinker composed of soul, mind, and spirit, occupies body after body in life after life on earth, the scene of his evolution where he must under the very laws of his being complete that evolution once it has been begun. A knowledge of reincarnation and karma banishes the fear and sorrow of death: just as sleep is a release from the body during which we have dreams, so death is a complete release, after which we enter a blissful dream world of our own making. Then after hundreds or perhaps thousands of years we incarnate in a new body on earth. We come once more into what we call waking existence and meet again and again the various egos whom we have known in prior births, so that the causes generated in company with them may be worked out. In any one life we are known to others as a personality, but in the whole stretch of eternity each of us is an individual, feeling in himself an identity not dependent on name, form, or recollection. Our physical body is merely the shell of the real man, made of matter of the earth from the three lower kingdoms — mineral, vegetable, and animal and being constantly worn out and renewed from day to day. Man himself is that invisible entity which inhabits the body and which is the cause of its present construction from lower forms of consciousness. The body is but one instrument of the man within. Other instruments are the psychic, mental, and spiritual-intuitional natures, each of which is composed of intelligent lives; when the controlling being withdraws at death, the instruments and lives separate, only to be later reassembled.
Summarizing, the doctrines of karma or responsibility, whereby a man reaps only as he sows in life through thoughts and actions, and of reincarnation or hope, which means that, regardless of what a man is reaping, he may yet use his free will to sow better seed — together these two doctrines are the very basis of a philosophy for living. Not only do they explain life and nature, but they are an integral part of evolution, for evolution could not go on without reimbodiment or cyclic renewal and the law of karma. Suffering can be a blessing in disguise because through it it is possible to learn useful lessons in life.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)