Why are we here?" "Why death?" "Is belief in a living, dying, and resurrected God our only salvation?" "Is there immortality?" "Is liberation possible?" "What is the meaning of it all?"
Long ago, and in a very special way, these and other timeless questions were explored and symbolically experienced by spiritually concerned men and women. They gathered at hallowed places during certain seasons to glimpse and experience the reality or wisdom hidden behind the veils of appearance. Others went along out of curiosity: some were rich and famous, among them a sampling of kings and emperors. The Mystery schools of the archaic ages provided the stage for the human consciousness to seek union with theos (divinity) and sophia (wisdom). H. P. Blavatsky tells us that the mysteries of heaven and earth which were revealed to very early mankind by divine teachers "became a great focus of light" [The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky, II, 281].
The initiatory pageants, once celebrated with ceremonies and ritual in Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, are now known to have taken place in one form or another in many countries and on most continents. The goal was to unfold consciousness, urging it on to heights of which it was formerly unaware, for the aim of the Mysteries has ever been a "discipline and stimulus to virtue" [ibid., I, xxxv]. In the Gnostic Pistis-Sophia Jesus is recorded as saying that no mystery is more excellent than that which shall "lead your souls into the Light of the lights, into the regions of Truth and Goodness, . . ." [Pitis Sophia, G. R. S. Mead trans., Bk. V, ch. 143, p. 313]. In a later comment, H. P. B. wrote that "The Soul was the one subject, and the knowledge of the Soul the one object of all the ancient Mysteries" [H. P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings, XIII, 40].
To avoid dangers lurking on the right and the left, the straight and narrow path was favored in the mystic teachings. The Golden Mean, if followed, better enabled the aspirant to identify with the more profound truth and the higher reality; the ideal is to be one with the One: to know theos is to have become united with the divine. We are an essential aspect of cosmic Being — we always have been and always will be; emotional alienation is temporary, and eventually we will "come home."
Physically and psychologically, where we are in earthly time and place is not always fair and pleasurable. Where is it written, however, that we must always be delighted? We are not to be complacent, but comprehensive. Like God — to the extent of our ability — we are to grow and move. Recall that, in Plato's view, theos implies eternal motion and expansion. For us, the best direction is by way of wisdom Sophia. She lights the way.
For over 1,000 years, the historically famous Greek Mysteries dealt with the reality behind religion, science, astronomy, astrology, and ethics. Due to strict secrecy, little is known of the details. The great truths, though, are clear, at least to those with ears to hear, and hearts to know. "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you" (Matt. 7:6).
This passage affirms the necessity for secrecy in matters of the higher religious philosophy. Thus, the secret doctrine, however much is published, remains a secret to the world, though its hidden meanings stimulate intuition and integration. The higher mind works at this level. Emotions and prejudices and the lower mind are little inclined to serious metaphysics, either in theory or practice. Material of such nature, therefore, automatically retains its shield of secrecy — not imposed from above, but by our limited perception. In the past, as at present, there was little incentive or resolve to seek broader understanding.
The mysteries of Life and Death were fathomed by the great masterminds of antiquity; and if they have preserved them in secresy and silence, it is because these problems formed part of the sacred mysteries; and, secondly, because they must have remained incomprehensible to the vast majority of men then, as they do now [The Secret Doctrine, II, 451].
The search for the miraculous arouses the attention of ancient and modern audiences. God himself, the story goes, was born of a virgin, adored by shepherds bearing gifts, falsely condemned, crucified, and resurrected to heaven. Today, committed Christians grant that if their Savior had not literally been resurrected, the faith would be a "lie." The resurrection, it is maintained, is the "heart and core" of the true faith.
All of the above events were features of the Mysteries centuries before the Christian era. Among others, the sun-god Mithra was virgin-born on the 25th of December and later resurrected from the dead. Sunday was so called, being dedicated to Mithra as sun-god. The highest degree in the Mithraic priesthood was held by the "Pater," later corrupted to Papa or Pope. Before Christ, Mithra was the last of a roster of dying and risen gods — Osiris, Dionysos, Attis, Adonis who claimed the power to grant immortality [Pagan Christs, J. M. Robertson, pp. 336-7, 181].
No wonder that Mithraism was a strong competitor to Christianity in the later Roman Empire. It was said that Mithra was "a christ before Christ." Some believe that Christianity absorbed Mithraism, or in part derived from it, though many early monks and priests held that it was all "the work of the devil to spread confusion among the faithful." Sunday, Christmas, and Easter, though "pagan" in origin, are honored by most churches, which continue to stress the virginity of the Mother of God.
G. de Purucker explains the mystery of the virgin birth:
Initiation brings forth in the neophyte this inner, latent, stellar energy from the womb of the virgin-mother, Sophia, the ancient wisdom, who is at once the "mother," "sister," "daughter," and "wife," of the man-god whom initiation thus brings to birth [Fountain-Source of Occultism, G. de Purucker, p. 314].
The story of Jesus is a time-honored Mystery-tale of initiation. There were, indeed, "christs before Christ." The original Mysteries dramatically presented initiations as individually victorious spiritual events. On the mundane level, there will always be triumphs and reversals. Transcendent glory is not necessarily or instantly apparent in the world. But, the world is "here today and gone tomorrow." Our physical environment is in the realm of maya, relative illusion. Such a realization aids us in viewing events and personalities from a higher perspective. Eastern teachings, the Mysteries, idealist and pantheistic philosophers, mystics generally, have sought and offered such wisdom. Rather than rest content with surface explanations, the wisdom teaching penetrates to the hidden meaning of events, titles, and personages; the key is thus made available.
Christianity, in its initial role as a Mystery religion, followed this well-worn path. With the fall of the Roman Empire, however, the degeneracy of the times turned rudely from spiritual symbolism to crude literalism of interpretation. In religio-philosophic matters literal "facts" seldom reflect metaphysical truth. People forget, over time, what their symbols stand for, so that ritualistic ceremonies often become empty and spiritually dead. Alone, the living and moving truth matters.
Birth and death are facts of life, for institutions and individuals. Death of itself confers no great benefit or wisdom. The advantage comes when the person has made some preparation to rise above ignorance here and now. "The soul is dead that slumbers," said Longfellow; in the words of Manly Palmer Hall, such a slumbering soul "goes into eternity making the same mistakes." The Greek philosophers maintained that physical birth is death to the soul, while spiritual birth sees the soul as risen above its base nature. The inner truth of being "born again" is experienced in the Mysteries. When these were brought to the world's marketplace, it was the signal for more thoughtful and sensitive people to turn elsewhere. Many embraced the original mystical Christianity in one or another of its Gnostic versions. Under Constantine the orthodox Church defeated its rivals to become the official religious establishment of the Roman Empire. By the sixth century the Mystery schools, which had enjoyed a golden age lasting longer than the prime of most established religions, were closed by order of Emperor Justinian at the request of their own members who had seen the degeneration of their sacred initiations. Rather than demand that one accept a specific personal Savior for salvation, the Mysteries of old required intuition, understanding, virtue, and integrity.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1985/January 1986; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)