Many of us have fond memories of school days, progressing on through our classes in elementary school, high school, and perhaps college, all under the watchful eye of our teachers. As we outgrew the lessons of one class, we graduated and moved forward with our classmates to the more complex lessons that await higher up the educational tree. The universe itself is in a sense a vast school in which we are all pupils, learning and progressing in awareness through the various kingdoms of beings and planes of existence that this cosmos offers us. In every classroom there are pupils at roughly the same stage of educational development — the various kingdoms of life — and teachers to help us along to graduation, the spiritual teachers, messengers, and divinities. This in essence is the concept of hierarchies, a cosmic ladder of life reaching upwards and downwards through countless kingdoms of life, offering the multitude of learning experiences we need to progress through and beyond this universe.
The word hierarchies comes from the Greek hieros, "sacred," and archein, "to rule." It therefore implies grades or a series of beings working cooperatively under delegated authority directed by One having supreme authority. Examples would be any commercial company, government, or club we may have belonged to that has members, managers, and a Chief Executive Officer. Everywhere nature gives evidence of hierarchical organization, of myriad individual lives working cooperatively within more complex entities in the march of evolution. Consider the amazing social organization of the insect world where colonies of ants or bees, for example, behave like a single organism. The human body provides another example in its complex of specialized organs, each fulfilling highly specific tasks to forward the health of the whole. If one looks at the basic building block of the body, the cell, miniature organs with specific functions within their tiny cosmos appear, and again on through the molecular and sub-atomic levels in an infinite hierarchy of life.
The concept of the universe as a hierarchy of life extending through the physical into the spiritual realms is integral to most religious systems around the world. From the animist beliefs of African traditional peoples to the hierarchy of the Hindu gods, there is evidence of a widespread belief in a gradation of power and authority in the universe, of a multitude of entities working together in their appropriate realms in conducting the affairs of the cosmos.
In some religions this hierarchy is symbolized as a tree — for example, the Asvattha tree of India, the tree of wisdom and knowledge whose fruits are immortality, with its roots in heaven and its branches in the material world. The Jewish Kabbalah speaks of nine sephira hanging from a tenth, Kether, the crown or primordial point. The Pythagorean school of Greek philosophy had what they called the sacred Tetraktys, referring to the hierarchies of the cosmos in mathematical symbolism. Christianity looks on various grades of archangels, angels, seraphim, and cherubim referred to in the Bible as intermediaries between man and God. Especially influential for our view of angelic beings in the Western world were the writings of 5th-century Christian mystic Dionysius the Areopagite, including his On the Celestial Hierarchy.
In modern theosophical literature hierarchies signify the innumerable degrees, grades, and steps of evolving entities in the cosmos guided and directed by higher entities in an infinite series upwards towards godhood and downwards towards increasing materiality. Of mankind's position in the innumerable steps of the ladder of evolution, G. de Purucker says:
The series of hierarchies extends infinitely in both directions. If he so choose for purposes of thought, man may consider himself at the middle point, from which extends above him an unending series of steps upon steps of higher beings of all grades — growing constantly less material and more spiritual, and greater in all senses — towards an ineffable point. And there the imagination stops, not because the series itself stops, but because our thought can reach no farther out nor in. And similar to this series, an infinitely great series of beings and states of beings descends . . . downwards and downwards, until there again the imagination stops, merely because our thought can go no farther. — Occult Glossary, p. 58
Theosophical literature generally employs scales of seven, ten, or twelve in describing the hierarchies of beings "above" and "below" the human condition. The hierarchies hang one to another like pendant jewels forming a chain. So, if we use the scale of ten, the highest of our series is the lowest of the next hierarchy above it, and the lowest of our hierarchy is the highest of the cosmic hierarchy below it, giving nine steps. The nine kingdoms of life from highest to lowest as taught by the Greeks are sometimes given as: Super-Divine, which is the highest for us but which is the lowest of the hierarchy above ours — then 1) Divine hierarchies; 2) Gods or the Divine-Spiritual; 3) Demigods, sometimes called the Divine Heroes; 4) Heroes, meaning highly evolved humans; 5) Human beings; 6) Animals; 7) Plants; 8) Minerals; and 9) Elementals. Last comes the highest "Super-Divine" level of the hierarchy below ours, which is highest for them but which is attached to the lowest portion of our present cosmic hierarchy.
What of the beings "above" humanity, the angels and gods of religion and folklore that so fascinate us? H. P. Blavatsky wrote that the universe is "guided from within outwards" just as human actions are:
The whole Kosmos is guided, controlled, and animated by almost endless series of Hierarchies of sentient Beings, each having a mission to perform, and who — whether we give them one name or another, and call them Dhyan-Chohans or Angels — are "messengers" in the sense only that they are the agents of Karmic and Cosmic Laws. They vary infinitely in their respective degrees of consciousness and intelligence; and to call them all pure Spirits without any of the earthly alloy "which time is wont to prey upon" is only to indulge in poetical fantasy. For each of these Beings either was, or prepares to become, a man, if not in the present, then in a past or a coming cycle . . . — The Secret Doctrine 1:274-5
Theosophy refers to the more evolved beings as the hierarchy of compassion, which extends from good and noble human beings on upwards through masters of wisdom, gods, and super-divine intelligences to the ineffable source of life in our universe. Here cosmic intelligence and divine substance, emanating from the boundless Unknowable, together produce all phenomena belonging to the spiritual or conscious side of nature. As self-aware human beings we stand midway between the gods and the elemental lives. Having nascent divine capacities, we each can choose here and now whether we will strive to join the gods or be content to remain among nature's lower kingdoms. As pupils in the school of life, our aim must be to graduate one day, along with our classmates, to other schools of higher learning in the cosmos. Our teachers from the hierarchy of compassion call gently, encouraging us to apply ourselves to our studies and one day join them in guiding the kingdoms of lives ever onward up the cosmic ladder of life.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)