Behind mankind's ordinary pursuits lies an inner realm of spiritual and moral exploration and achievement whose representatives stand behind the various systems that together form the wisdom tradition of the ages. In The Mystery Schools (second revised edition, Theosophical University Press, ready in Summer 1999; full text online edition currently available at www.theosociety.org/pasadena/ts/tup-onl.htm). Grace F. Knoche discusses this hidden source of the world's religions, sciences, and philosophies which is the wellspring of humanity's inner life and spiritual sustenance.
What are these Mystery schools? According to Ms. Knoche,
A Mystery school is a university of the soul, a school for the study of the mysteries of the inner nature of man and of surrounding nature. By understanding these mysteries, the pupil perceives his intimate relationship if not ultimate union with divinity, and strives through discipline, traditionally imposed, to become at one with his inner god.
. . . as we look at the pages of history, and farther into the mist of unrecorded time, we do not see the schools themselves, but . . . From inference and spiritual testimony we can trace the pageantry of the lightbearers as they have passed from age to age, inaugurating the grand religions and philosophies of the human race. Some of these lights shine with immense glory, others with less strength, while still others are but fitful gleams of half-understood truth. — Foreword
To understand the Mystery schools, we must look back to the intellectual awakening of mankind which took place, according to theosophic teachings, some 18 million years ago. During this childhood of humanity, high spiritual beings connected with our planet made an indelible impression on the inner nature of every human being:
the highest Planetary Spirits, . . . appear on Earth but at the origin of every new human kind; at the junction of, and close of the two ends of the great cycle. And, they remain with man no longer than the time required for the eternal truths they teach to impress themselves so forcibly upon the plastic minds of the new races as to warrant them from being lost or entirely forgotten in ages hereafter, by the forthcoming generations. The mission of the planetary Spirit is but to strike the Key Note of Truth. — The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, pp. 40-1
These planetary spiritual guardians are part of the hierarchy of compassion, that chain of aspiring beings extending through mankind to the gods and beyond. In the earliest epochs of human life, the most evolutionally advanced human beings drew together and through a collective act of will and spiritual knowledge created a focus of the spiritual solar and planetary forces reaching mankind — a "Wondrous Being" existing to this day as the head of the hierarchy of compassion on earth. This being attracted to itself those sympathetic to its nature, and together they formed an association or brotherhood, a "Lodge" which has worked through the ages for the protection and enlightenment of all terrestrial beings.
In the beginning the truths of nature were apparent to all: the organs of spiritual perception in ethereal infant humanity were fully functional. But as intellect and materialization evolved forth ever more powerfully, the sense of egoity and selfishness increased, while spirituality and intuitive insight weakened. Finally, the original revelations of the planetary beings became so clouded that "With the masses they degenerated into Sorcery, taking later on the shape of exoteric religions, of idolatry full of superstitions, . . ." (H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 2:281). Because knowledge of the inner workings of nature was so widely abused, access to it began to be deliberately limited to the most spiritually advanced and trustworthy. To accomplish this, the Mystery schools were formed. As Ms. Knoche explains:
The Brotherhood, therefore, which had already established invisible lines of esoteric instruction even in late Lemurian times, in which those sensitive enough to such could be trained, purified, and made strong for the reception of truth and its safeguarding, now launched a systematic campaign. Disciples, messengers, went forth and inaugurated esoteric colleges, universities of the soul, special training centers for the select purpose of gathering into them the choicest men and women for discipline and instruction in the mysteries of nature.
Thus were established some four or five millions of years ago, when Atlantis was threatening to destroy itself through spiritual iniquity, the first Mystery schools. From these early centers sprang other Mystery schools in all parts of the Atlantean world. By the time the Atlanteans were in their heyday of material splendor, these schools were working their hardest to stem the increasing tide of sorcery. — ch. 2
The purpose of these schools was to spiritualize human thought-life; to enable individuals, through discipline and inner awakening, to take their place as conscious co-workers with the hierarchy of compassion; and to preserve truth in its purity for the future, while continuing investigation into the workings of the universe, inner and outer. To preserve human knowledge from age to age, there have been — and are still —
scattered throughout the world, a handful of thoughtful and solitary students, who pass their lives in obscurity, far from the rumors of the world, studying the great problems of the physical and spiritual universes. They have their secret records in which are preserved the fruits of the scholastic labors of the long line of recluses whose successors they are. The knowledge of their early ancestors, the sages of India, Babylonia, Nineveh, and the imperial Thebes; the legends and traditions commented upon by the masters of Solon, Pythagoras, and Plato, in the marble halls of Heliopolis and Sais; traditions which, in their days, already seemed to hardly glimmer from behind the foggy curtain of the past; — all this, and much more, is recorded on indestructible parchment, and passed with jealous care from one adept to another. — H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled 1:557-8
The universe being dual throughout, while the forces of light were gathering together those who gravitated toward spirit and compassion, the forces of darkness were simultaneously gathering into schools those who gravitated toward selfishness and matter. As the Atlantean cycle came to its final crisis, conflict between these adepts of light and darkness increased, so that schools still more secret were founded in order to safeguard spiritual knowledge and powers from abuse. When the bulk of Atlantean civilization was destroyed by its own malignancy and the cyclic forces of nature, the present human cycle — encompassing all peoples of today and for hundreds of thousands of years into the past — opened in full; and the Mystery schools of both types continued down to historic times. Most of this story is lost to academic historians, but survives in myth, religious traditions, and the mysterious structures that still dot the globe, as well as in the secret records of the Brotherhood of compassion and in impressions upon the ethereal inner fabric of the earth, the so-called astral light.
Demeter and Persephone with Triptolemus. Eleusinian Mysteries, 5th century BC.
In discussing the Mystery schools, Ms. Knoche speaks of their founding and methods. Their system of teaching was based on the fact that, although spiritual consciousness lies latent within everyone, it must be awakened by experience, effort, and discipline. First come the Lesser Mysteries, combining purification and discipline with dramatic, allegorical, and intellectual representations of the realities of the universe. When these have been mastered, there begins the Greater Mysteries, where candidates learn through experience by actually becoming what is studied. In the more advanced stages, the aspirant follows consciously the pathways the soul takes in sleep and death, bringing back the knowledge and experience gained. Freed from the body, the human consciousness "passes into other spheres and to other planes and learns the nature of these by becoming them, which is the only way by which knowledge thereof roots itself into the soul, . . ." (G. de Purucker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, pp. 258-9). This inner journey — the traveling to lower and higher spheres of being, the mystic death and rebirth — holds the key to the symbolism of much of the Mysteries worldwide. And after the greater initiations, the successful seeker arises a new man or woman, having experienced a second birth of spiritual consciousness.
Many Mystery traditions no longer exist publicly. The closing of particular Mystery centers was inevitably caused by the decline of those in charge of them, which often went hand in hand with increasing materialism and self-seeking in the surrounding society. Then, "The spirit of the Brotherhood retreats, the rind of ritual remains." When such an outer school closed, its members scattered, some forming secret societies, others teaching as they could.
Thus periodically is accomplished the work of the brothers of the shadow, the destruction of the outposts of the Mysteries, but its core and heart, the great brotherhood of light, remains unscarred by defeat. Never will the hand of darkness lay its fingers upon the heart of esotericism which beats as strongly today as it did some 18 million years ago, and will continue to pulsate in undiminished power till the death of our solar system — and beyond. The light of truth is the light of the spiritual sun of our universe. As long as its rays gleam down into the world of earth, so long will the rays of spirit warm human hearts. — ch. 10
And what is available today? The Mysteries continue as a source of spiritual strength and guidance in every nation on the globe. Mostly secret and unpretentious, these efforts cannot be judged by a country's size or worldly prominence. As G. de Purucker remarked, "a little country like the Netherlands might be the center of a secret Mystery-School whose ramifications and influence would extend over half of Europe . . ." (Studies in Occult Philosophy, p. 637). Exemplifying the bodhisattva ideal, those involved in these sacred studies constantly reach out to those behind them, encouraging, teaching — patient elder brothers and sisters who must work with karma in their effort to awaken the Master within each human being. As one of H. P. Blavatsky's teachers wrote:
For countless generations hath the adept builded a fane of imperishable rocks, a giant's Tower of Infinite Thought, wherein the Titan dwelt, and will yet, if need be, dwell alone, emerging from it but at the end of every cycle, to invite the elect of mankind to co-operate with him and help in his turn enlighten superstitious man. And we will go on in that periodical work of ours; we will not allow ourselves to be baffled in our philanthropic attempts until that day when the foundations of a new continent of thought are so firmly built that no amount of opposition and ignorant malice guided by the Brethren of the Shadow will be found to prevail. — Mahatma Letters, p. 51
To contact the world, the spiritual brotherhood sends forth its envoys — spiritual teachers, and great philosophic and scientific minds. How much help people receive in any time or place depends on their aspirations. As Dr. de Purucker wrote:
When the human race or even an individual makes the spiritual and intellectual appeal in terms so strong, with spiritual energy so vibrant, with the very fiber of the inner life, it actually operates with the spiritual magnetism of a teacher, and the call is heard in the Brotherhood invariably, and an envoy or messenger appears in the world as its representative. — The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 568
These spiritual guardians, through their secret and public activities, continuously influence human life and thought for good — to the extent we and our individual and collective karma allow.
Humanity is a oneness. We are joined indissolubly in the inner portions of our being with every life that exists within the galaxy and beyond. We can become consciously connected to the hierarchy of compassion — that legion of human beings, demigods, and divinities that form the spiritual heart of mankind, the channel through which the inner energies of the solar system reach every person on the globe. We become links in this chain of spiritual love when, through self-directed evolution, our everyday consciousness realizes its unity with all. By tracing the periodic efforts of the forces of light to answer the deepest longings of the human heart, The Mystery Schools provides a valuable overview of the workings of spirit among mankind, past and present.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Theosophical University Press)