Nature's happenings are not accidental. Each spark from the anvil has its genesis, its mathematical orbital life before disappearing into the darkness. Every event would be predictable if we knew enough about causes, and cycles are no exception. Cyclic occurrences are usually made up of smaller cycles whose pulsations coincide at longer intervals, as hours make up a day or as lengthening days the flowing seasons.
The fundamental operations of nature are based on cycles of cause and effect. Without this dual process our cosmos would rebecome chaos. We therefore assume that every effect results from certain causes, but that these are not always discernible. The timing of the effects is sometimes instantaneous, but more often delayed. The ancient concept of karma, of sowing and reaping, action and reaction, deals with all phases of this subject, adding that with respect to humans, causes sown in one incarnation may not be reaped until some future life when the time is propitious and the various individuals involved are again together.
This last thought brings forward another cycle prominently referred to by nearly all peoples — that of life, death, and rebirth. Many today, reared in the scientific tradition, look upon death as the end of the individual. There is life and there is death: the former comes to us by genetic transmission, and the latter ends our egoic existence, our only survival being in our children. Orthodox Christianity teaches the creation of each soul at birth, its life here under the mandate of God, and its passage after death for an infinite stay in either supernal or nether realms.
Other religions taught that our present life is but one incident in the existence of the soul, that after death the self or monad travels through the interior regions of earth, after which it traverses what Greek and Latin writers called the seven sacred planets. This explains the classical reference to one who has died — dormit in astris: he sleeps among the stars.
The peregrinations of human and other monads from sphere to sphere to the sun and back to earth are referred to in theosophical literature as the circulations of the cosmos, the period between incarnations during which life-waves of souls pass from planet to planet, and planet to sun, leaving off at each sphere the qualities that belong there. When the after-death state of an individual draws to a close, the human spirit returns along the same pathways, in each world attracting to itself that which belongs to it, until finally, fully clothed, it drinks the waters of Lethe, of Forgetfulness, and enters upon another incarnation.
If these ideas sound somewhat strange, it is only because we have been nurtured on other beliefs. Actually, the vestiges of this teaching remain in Christianity under the guise of purgatory, during which the soul extricates itself from its lower elements before ascending to heaven. Unfortunately, the Christian movement in the early centuries dropped one by one its earlier concepts of reincarnation, the existence of many superior beings, the plurality of worlds with their inhabitants, and the recognition that cause and effect operate throughout all levels of the cosmos, spiritual, moral, and physical.
The concept of reincarnation sheds a penetrating light upon the study of history, which is puzzling to many because, upon observing the rise and fall of dynasties, of cultures, the intuition senses that these cycles are expressions of universal laws from which no human institutions are exempt. But when we try to explain why this people or that gain preeminence, or why there is often no apparent handing on of culture from one civilization to the next, we find ourselves groping in the dark. There are probably a number of reasons for this seeming lack of continuity, but the chief one may be that we are seeking causes in the world of effects, that is, restricting ourselves to economic, environmental, and biological explanations, leaving untouched what could be the prime mover in history, the human soul.
Nations flourish or decline not by reason of their heredity or congenial or barren surroundings, but because of the quality of souls that incarnate at any given epoch and the types of destiny (karma) they bring with them to work out. Great men produce great eras, and inferior souls will force a decline, no matter how propitious the inheritance, physical or cultural, from their forebears. There would be no rising and declining cycles in history, only a straight and continuous advance, if human evolution depended solely upon an ever-refining genetic heredity, an ever-improving environment, or an ever-increasing storehouse of information and artifacts. From the stand- point of reincarnation these last are secondary factors.
Even a small acquaintance with cycles, therefore, can illuminate the study of past and present. The circle of cause and effect in conjunction with repeated incarnations brings to flower the seeds of past sowing and draws together the souls who were the sowers. The idea adds another dimension to the history of races, tribes, nations, even families, all of which work out their destinies according to ancient causes, and in the process the individuals which compose these units enrich or debase themselves or their heritage, and at the same time contribute to the rise or fall of their present nation or race.
Another cycle of considerable interest, and one easily confirmed by even the most casual study of history, has to do with humanity's prevailing thought-life, which is successively dominated by one or another of the three great branches of human knowledge and striving — religion, philosophy, and science. Not long ago the entire outlook of Western man was tinctured by the religion of his time and place, which was medieval Christianity. The firmament, earth, and man were looked upon as testimonials to the glory of God. Man's history started in Eden and his subsequent adventures, precipitated by Adam's "Fall," have led him to seek salvation through accepting God's only begotten Son as his Savior. These thoughts prevail over many minds to this day.
But with the coming of the Renaissance and revival of learning, a current of ancient ideas poured in from the Arabic and classical worlds. Long forbidden areas of thought were rationally explored; various philosophical systems were devised, some attempting to reconcile God with His creation, some based in matter as the only reality, and others insisting that nothing was real outside of the human mind. An era of philosophy had dawned.
Furthermore, the foundations of modern science were being laid by pioneers in physics, chemistry, and astronomy. But it was geology that eventually laid to rest theological dogmas about earth's age and genesis. As the framework of the cosmos began to emerge, researchers felt confident that in time they would be able to explain all natural phenomena without recourse to religious dogma or speculative metaphysics. Scientific principles were utilized for enormous practical benefits, which brought about the Industrial Revolution. The climax of scientific materialism coincided with Darwin's Origin of Species and Descent of Man. Now at last, it was claimed, the history of all living creatures could be explained, with man as no special product of a Creator, rather the culmination of a material process extending back hundreds of millions of years.
Towards the end of the last century, however, revolutionary discoveries were made respecting the composition of matter. The atom was found to be divisible and this fact revised our entire concept of the physical world. The result has been a growing split between technology and pure research, the former growing overbearingly materialistic, and the latter increasingly philosophic. This situation in turn is bringing to birth an era in which from all appearances spirituality may again become a dominant force — not the religion of sects and churches, although for a time they may benefit from the resurgence. What seems to be surfacing among people of all age groups is the religious spirit, quite apart from dogma and ritual; and an eagerness to accept truth wherever it may be found — in science, in the wisdom of the Far and Near East, our classical heritage, the Christian and other mystics, or perhaps in nature, or in the precepts of some modern school. The search is for realities to replace beliefs; the reaction is against empty formalisms in our economic, social, and religious life.
An interesting aspect of these cycles of religion, science, and philosophy is that each branch of thought and endeavor represents a different facet of the human consciousness. Religion employs the mystical and devotional faculties. Philosophy comprises the coordinating or intellectual side, working with truths supplied by the intuition or through observing nature. Science engages the mind in the study and classification of facts uncovered by researching the outside world. And just as human empires go through their youth, adulthood, old age, and finally their demise, only to be reborn elsewhere, so the institutions of the human mind, whether a school of philosophy, a church, or an all-embracing material outlook, have their day in the sun only to give way to a succeeding era when human genius may seek truth along fresh avenues.
The timing of this threefold cycle no doubt varies with circumstances. Perhaps the Babylonian time period of 600 years, called a Neros (or Naros), might mark the full circle of all three. Or possibly the entire Neros may apply to a larger cycle of one branch only, such as religion during the flowering of Arabic culture in the Middle Ages, within which at different times the predominant thought was sublimely mystical, at others philosophical, or again, expressed itself in scientific speculation — but all suffused by religious overtones.
Whenever we think of cycles, we think of numbers: how many vibrations per second, impulses an hour, years in an orbit, millennia in a precession, etc. And down through the ages researchers have recorded these pulsations of natural, human, and cosmic life, noting their correlations. Today, through the use of computers, this approach is fast becoming a science with practical applications to such widely divergent subjects as the fluctuations of the stock market, the recurrence of disease, human biological rhythms, and many more. The story of bird and animal migration with its many mysterious factors is also being scrutinized, for these are largely cyclic in character.
It is when we try to relate cycles to the story of civilization that we cannot help but note how rich was ancient speculation and how scanty is that of today. It is true that Arnold Toynbee dwells somewhat upon this theme; and earlier writers like Sir Flinders Petrie theorized concerning the cyclic nature of human history. Dr. Petrie's small book, The Revolutions of Civilization, contains stimulating ideas about periods in the development of cultures. But generally speaking our modern thinkers, curtailed by Darwinism on the one hand, and by Christian dogma on the other, leave themselves little historical time as a backdrop against which the ebb and flow of humanity's civilized strivings can be seen in any kind of universal perspective. In practically no time mankind advanced from mud huts to pyramids!
Archaic philosophy also suffered from peculiar limitations, for its major truths were drawn from a body of wisdom the main aspects of which were held secret, belonging to the Mystery schools of the time. Ancient philosophers therefore had to have recourse to the language of symbolism, to parables, stories, and myths, in which truths could be found, to be sure, but only by those who had the keys, or whose intuitions were sufficiently awake to lead them to proper interpretations. But enough appears in the fragments of the past that have survived the ravages of more barbarous eras, to reveal how grandiose was their view of the cosmos and all its living parts. For they held that the hosts of lives that we familiarly know as the kingdoms of nature are the building blocks of this being we call earth. They are the expression of earth in the same manner as atoms of all sorts and on all levels express the being we call man. By implication man must therefore have been coeval with nature.
Having this enlarged view in mind, philosophers of India, for example, assigned a figure of 4,320,000,000 years for a planetary life cycle. This number sequence 4-3-2 is significant and appears many times in ancient speculations. It was held in former times that our earth is slightly beyond the midpoint of its life. Mankind after many peregrinations through the inner and outer aspects of earth's complex constitution is now the dominant species on this our physical globe. Of the seven major races to run their span here, theosophic chronology holds that we have passed through four and are nearing the midpoint of the fifth.
It is certainly beyond coincidence that the Mayans of Central America, Hesiod in ancient Greece, the Brahman philosophers of old, and many others which could be cited, confirm in their written and oral traditions that we are now in a so-called "fifth" race. Hesiod in his Works and Days speaks of four ages through which each race must pass: the Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron, and mentions that we are entering the Iron Age of our present race, "a race of Iron, when . . . Strength will be right and reverence shall cease to be" (lines 175 and 195). The Dark Age always marks the midpoint of races, their most material phase, a time of transition, of calamities, violence; and a time when the seeds of the next race are sown. The same thought may also be found in India's Surya-Siddhanta, perhaps the world's oldest astronomical treatise; also among the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest.
The Surya-Siddhanta (1:17) terms its four ages yugas, assigning to each a certain span of years:
Krita (Satya)-yuga (Golden) = 1,728,000 years
Treta-yuga (Silver) = 1,296,000 years
Dvapara-yuga (Bronze) = 864,000 years
Kali-yuga (Iron) = 432,000 years
Total duration of a Maha-yuga = 4,320,000 years
The Hindus also assert that we are only just entering the Iron Age (Kali-yuga) of our fifth race, it having commenced with the death of Krishna in 3102 BC, slightly over 5,000 years ago. Note the number sequence 4-3-2 in the chart of the yugas, the total figure commences with these digits, as does the cycle of Kali-yuga. The same three are also found in the years assigned for the life span of a planet. The Pythagoreans commemorated this sequence in their mystical Tetraktys, in which the bottom line has four dots, and above this three, then two, and finally one. (This wonderful symbol has many other implications.)
Another interesting confirmation is found in the Elder Edda of Scandinavia in the lay of Grimner, where it says that Valhalla has 540 doors, from each of which issue 800 warriors — or 432,000 warriors, the number given in India for the Kali-yuga or Iron Age. An intriguing sidelight from human physiology is that in the course of one hour the average heart beats 4,320 times!
The material discussed here only hints at a subject which has occupied the entire lives of numerous Kabbalists, Brahmans, Magi, and Pythagoreans — in fact of scientists, mystics, and the wise in many lands and ages. But enough has been presented to illustrate that the whole cosmos collectively and all its parts individually live, die, and are reborn in a congeries of cycles, great and small, in the course of which the Divine Essence builds for itself ever more stately expressions. The infinite variety of these cycles allows the inner being — whether of atoms, men, or gods — to learn by karma from every type of experience, thus rounding out its entire nature.
For most of us knowledge seldom leaves the realm of speculation, except for those moments when gleams of intuition illuminate the mind and we see the landmarks of reality through the mists of abstract thought. The law of cycles allows us to bring symbolic lore into the visible cosmos. That is why it can be both helpful and dangerous; and why among the ancients the full knowledge of cycles was always wrapped in allegory.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)
Survey the circling stars, as though yourself were in midcourse with them. Often picture the changing and rechanging dance of the elements. Visions of this kind purge away the dross of our earth-bound life.
Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth; its assemblies for peace or war, its husbandry, matings, and partings, births and deaths, noisy law courts, lonely wastes, alien peoples of every kind, feasting, mourning, bargaining — observing all the motley mixture, and the harmonious order that is wrought out of contrariety.
Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too. Its pattern will be the same, down to the last detail; for it cannot break step with the steady march of creation. To view the lives of men for forty years or forty thousand is therefore all one; for what more will there be for you to see? — Marcus Aurelius