(Based on a lecture delivered on a Sunday afternoon at South Place Institute during the late 1880's)
dealing with a great theme within narrow limits one has always to make a
choice of evils: one must either substantiate each point, buttress it up
with arguments, and thus fail to give any roughly complete idea of the
whole; or one must make an outline of the whole, leaving out the proofs
which bring conviction of the truth of the teaching. As the main object
of this paper is to place before the average man or woman an idea of
Theosophy as a whole, I elect to take the inconvenience of the latter
alternative, and use the expository instead of the controversial method.
Those who are sufficiently interested in the subject to desire further
knowledge can easily pass on into the investigation of evidences,
evidences that are within the reach of all who have patience, power of
thought, and courage.
We, who are Theosophists, allege that there exists a great body of doctrines, philosophical, scientific, and ethical, which forms the basis of, and includes all that is accurate in, the philosophies, sciences, and religions of the ancient and modern worlds. This body of doctrine is a philosophy and a science more than a religion in the ordinary sense of the word, for it does not impose dogmas as necessary to be believed under any kind of supernatural penalties, as do the various Churches of the world. It is indeed a religion, if religion be the binding of life by a sublime ideal; but it puts forward its teachings as capable of demonstration, not on authority which it is blasphemy to challenge or deny.
That some great body of doctrine did exist in antiquity, and was transmitted from generation to generation, is patent to any investigator. It was this which was taught in the Mysteries, of which Dr. Warburton wrote: "The wisest and best men in the Pagan world are unanimous in this, that the Mysteries were instituted pure, and proposed the noblest ends by the worthiest means." To speak of the Initiates is to speak of the greatest men of old: in their ranks we find Plato and Pythagoras, Euclid and Democritus, Thales and Solon, Apollonius and Iamblichus. In the Mysteries unveiled they learned their wisdom, and gave out to the world such fragments of it as their oath allowed. But those fragments have fed the world for centuries, and even yet the learned of the modern West sit at the feet of these elder sons of wisdom. Among the teachers of the early Christian Church some of these men were found; they held Christianity in its esoteric meaning, and used exoteric dogmas merely as veils to cover the hidden truth. "Unto you it is given," said Jesus, "to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but unto them that are without all these things are done in parables" (Mark iv. II). Clemens Alexandrinus and Origen both recognise the esoteric nature of the underlying truths of Christianity, as before them did Paul. In West as in East exoteric religions were but the popular representations of the Secret Wisdom. But with the triumph of ecclesiasticism, the Secret Wisdom drew back further and further into the shade, until its very existence slowly faded from the minds of men. Now and then one of its disciples appeared in Christendom, and gave to the world some "discovery" which started thought on some new and fruitful line; thus Paracelsus, with his "discovery" of hydrogen, his magnetic treatment for the cure of disease, and his many hints at secrets of nature not even yet worked out. Trace through the Middle Ages, too often by the lurid light of flames blazing round a human body, the path along which the pioneers of science toiled, and it will be found that the "magicians" and the "wizards" were the finger-posts that marked the way. Passing strange is it to note how the minds of men have changed in their aspect to the guardians of the Hidden Wisdom. Of old, in their passionate gratitude, men regarded them as well nigh divine, thinking no honours too great to pay to those who had won the right of entrance into the temple of the Unveiled Truth. In the Middle Ages, when men, having turned from the light, saw devils everywhere in the darkness, the Adepts of the Right Hand Path were dreaded as those of the Left, and wherever new knowledge appeared and obscure regions of nature were made visible, cries of terror and wrath rent the air, and men paid their benefactors with torture and with death. In our own time, secure in the completeness of our knowledge, certain that Our philosophy embraces all things possible in heaven and earth, we neither honour the teachers as gods nor denounce them as devils: with a shrug of contempt and a sniff of derision we turn from them, as they come to us with outstretched hands full of priceless gifts, and we mutter, "Frauds, charlatans!" entrenched as we are in our modern conceit that only the nineteenth century is wise.
Theosophy claims to be this Secret Wisdom, this great body of doctrine, and it alleges that this precious deposit, enriched with the results of the investigations of generations of seers and sages, verified by countless experiments, is to-day, as of old, in the hands of a mighty Brotherhood, variously spoken of as Adepts, Masters, Mahatmas, Brothers, who are living men, evolved further than average humanity, who work ever for the service of their race with a perfect and selfless devotion, holding their high powers in trust for the common good, content to be without recognition, having power beyond all desires of the personal self.
claim is a lofty one, but it can be substantiated by evidence. I leave
it as a mere statement of the position taken up. Coming to the Western
world to-day, Theosophy speaks far more openly than it has ever done
before, owing to the simple fact that with the evolution of the race
Theosophy postulates the existence of an eternal Principle, known only through its effects. No words can describe It, for words imply discriminations, and This is ALL. We murmur, Absolute, Infinite, Unconditioned, - but the words mean naught. SAT, the Wise speak of: BE-NESS, not even Being nor Existence. Only as the Manifested becomes can language be used with meaning; but the appearance of the Manifested implies the Un-manifested, for the Manifested is transitory and mutable, and there must be something that eternally endures. This Eternal must be postulated, else whence the existences around us? It must contain within Itself That which is the essence of the germ of all possibilities, all potencies: space is the only conception that can even faintly mirror It without preposterous distortion, but silence least offends in these high regions where the wings of thought beat faintly and lips can only falter, not pronounce.
The universe is, in Theosophy, the manifestation of an aspect of SAT. Rhythmically succeed each other periods of activity and periods of repose, periods of manifestation and periods of absorption, the expiration and inspiration of the Great Breath, in the figurative and most expressive phraseology of the East. The outbreathing is the manifested worlds; the inbreathing terminates the period of activity. The Root-Substance differentiates into "spirit-matter," whereof the universe, visible and invisible, is built up, evolving into seven stages, or planes, of manifestation, each denser than its predecessor; the substance is the same in all, but the degrees of its density differ. So the chemist may have in his receiver water held invisible: he may condense it into a faint mist-cloud, condense it further into vapour, further yet into liquid, further yet into solid; throughout he has the same chemical compound, though he changes its condition. Now it is well to remember that the chemist is dealing with facts in nature, and that his results may therefore throw light on natural methods, working in larger fields; we may at least learn from such an illustration to clarify our conceptions of the past course of evolution. Thus, from the Theosophical standpoint, "spirit" and "matter" are essentially one, and the universe one living whole from centre to circumference, not a molecule in it that is not instinct with life. Hence the difficulty that scientists have always found in defining "life." Every definition they have made has broken down as excluding some phenomena that they were compelled to recognise as those of life. Sentiency, in our meaning of the word there may not be, say in the mineral; but is it therefore "dead"? Its particles cohere, they vibrate, they attract and they repel: what are these but manifestations of that living energy which rolls the worlds in their courses, flashes from continent to continent, thrills from root to summit of the plant, pulses in the animal, reasons in the man? One Life and therefore One Law everywhere, not a Chaos of warring atoms but a Kosmos of ordered growth. Death itself is but a change in life-manifestation, life which has outworn one garment and, rending it in pieces, clothes itself anew. When the thoughtless say, "He is dead," the wise know that the countless "lives" of which the human body is built up have become charged with more energy than the bodily structure can stand, that the strain has become too great, that disruption must ensue. But "death" is only transformation not destruction, and every molecule has pure life-essence at its core with the material garment it has woven round itself of its own substance for action on the objective plane.
of the seven Kosmic planes of manifestation is marked off by its own
characteristics; in the first pure "spirit," the primary emanation
of the ONE, subtlest, rarest, of all manifestations, incognisable even
by the highest of Adepts save as present in its vehicle, the Spiritual
Soul: without form, without intelligence, as we use the word - these
matters are too high, "I cannot attain unto them." Next comes the
plane of Mind, of loftiest spiritual intelligence, where first entity as
entity can be postulated; individualism begins, the Ego first appears.
Rare and subtle is matter on that plane, yet form is there possible, for
the individual implies the presence of limitation, the separation of the
"I" from the "not I." Fourth, still densifying, comes the plane
of animal passions and desires, actual forms on their own plane. Then,
fifthly, that of the vivid animating life-principle, as, absorbed in
forms. Sixthly, the astral plane, in which matter is but slightly rarer
than with ourselves. Seventhly, the plane familiar to all of us, that of
the objective universe. Let us delay for a moment over this question of
"planes," for on the understanding of it hinges our grasp of the
philosophical aspect of Theosophy. A plane may be defined as a state,
marked off by clear characteristics; it must not be thought of as a
place, as though the universe were made up of shells one within the
other like the coats of an onion. The conception is metaphysical, not
physical, the consciousness acting on each plane in fashion appropriate
to each. Thus a man may pass from the plane of the objective in which
his consciousness is generally acting, on to the other planes: he may
pass into the astral in sleep, under mesmerism, under the influence of
various drugs; his consciousness may be removed from the physical plane,
his body passive, his brain inert; an electric light leaves his eyes
unaffected, a gong beaten at his ear cannot rouse the organ of hearing;
the organs through which his consciousness normally acts in the physical
universe are all useless, for the consciousness that uses them is
transferred to another plane. But he can see, hear, understand, on the
astral plane, see sights invisible to physical
Now the consciousness of man can thus pass from plane to plane because he is himself the universe in miniature, and is built up himself of these seven "principles," as they are sometimes called, or better, is himself a differentiation of consciousness on seven planes. It may be well, at this stage, to give to these states of consciousness the names by which they are known in Theosophical literature, for although some people shrink from names that are unfamiliar, there are, after all, only seven of them, and the use of them enables one to avoid the continual repetition of clumsy and inexact descriptive sentences. To Macrocosm and Microcosm alike the names apply, although they are most often found in relation to man. The Spirit in man is named Atma, cognisable only in its vehicle Buddhi, the Spiritual Soul; these are the reflexions in man or the highest planes in the universe. The Spiritual Intelligence is Manas, the Ego in man, the immortal entity, the link between Atma-Buddhi and the temporary personality. Below these come in order Kama, the emotional and passional nature; Prana, the animating life-principle of the personality; Linga Sarira, the "astral body," the double of the physical, but formed of the somewhat more ethereal “astral” matter; lastly, Sthula Sarira, the physical body. These seven states are grouped under two heads: Atma-Buddhi-Manas make up the trinity in man, imperishable, immortal, the "pilgrim" that passes through countless lives, the individual, the True Man. Kama, Prana, Linga Sarira, and Sthula Sarira form the quaternary, the transitory part of the human being, the person, which perishes gradually, onwards from the death of the physical body. This disintegrates, the molecules of physical, astral, kamic, matter finding all new forms into which they are builded, and the more quickly they are all resolved into their elements the better for all concerned. The consciousness of the normal man resides chiefly on the physical, astral, and kamic planes, with the lower portion of the Manasic. In flashes of genius, in loftiest aspirations, he is touched for a moment by the light from the higher Manasic regions, but this comes - only comes - to the few, and to these but in rare moments of sublime abstraction. Happy they who even thus catch a glimpse of the Divine Angoeides, the immortal Ego within them. To none born of women, save the Masters, is it at the present time given by the law of evolution to rise to the Atmic-Buddhic planes in man; thither the race will climb millenniums hence, but at present it boots not to speak thereof.
of these planes has its own organisms, its own phenomena, the laws of
its own manifestation; and each can be investigated as exactly, as
scientifically, as experimentally, as the objective plane with which we
are most familiar. All that is necessary is that we should use
appropriate organs of sensation, and appropriate methods of
investigation. On the objective plane we are already able to obey this
rule; we do not use our eyes to listen to sounds, and then deny that
sounds exist because our eyes cannot hear them; nor do we take in hand
the microscope to examine a distant nebula, and then say that the nebula
is not there because the field of the microscope is dark. A very slight
knowledge of our own objective universe will place us in the right
mental attitude towards the unknown. Why do we see, hear, taste, feel?
Merely because our physical body is capable of receiving certain
impressions from without by way of the avenues of sense. But there are
myriads of phenomena, as "real" as those we familiarly cognise,
which are to us non-existent, for the very simple reason that our organs
of sensation are not adapted to receive them. Take the air-vibrations
which, translated into terms of consciousness, we call sound. If an
instrument that emits successive notes be sounded in a room with a dozen
people, as the notes become shriller and shriller one person after
another drops out of the circle of auditors, and is wrapped in silence
while still a note is sounding, audible to others there; at last a pipe
speaks that no one hears, and though all the air be throbbing with its
vibrations, silence complete reigns in the room. The vibration-waves
have become so short and rapid that the mechanism of the human ear
cannot vibrate in unison with them; the objective phenomenon is there,
but the subjective does not respond to it, so that for man it does not
exist. Similar illustrations might be drawn in connection with every
sense, and it is surely not too much to claim that if on the plane to
which our bodies are correlated, phenomena constantly escape our dull
perceptions, men shall not found on their ignorance of other planes the
absolute denial of their existence. Ignorance can only justify silence,
suspension of judgment; it cannot justify denial. Knowledge is necessary
for rational belief, but the verifiable assertions of those who claim
such knowledge are surely more weighty than the mere denial of
ignorance. As in all other branches of scientific inquiry, investigation
should precede the formation of opinion, and those who would understand
and experiment in the occult regions of nature must, by long, steady,
and patient courage, become occultists. Only
The evolution of man consists in the acquirement by the Ego of experience, and the gradual moulding of the physical nature into a form which can readily respond to every prompting of the spirit within. This evolution is carried on by the repeated incarnation of the Ego, over-shadowed by the spirit, in successive personalities, through which it lives and acts on the objective plane. The task before it when it starts on the wheel of life on this earth, during the present cycle, is to acquire and assimilate all experience, and so to energize and sublimate the objective form of man that it may become a fit instrument and dwelling for the spirit; the complete assimilation of the Ego with the spirit, of Manas with Atma-Buddhi, being the final goal of the long and painful pilgrimage. It is obvious that such work cannot be accomplished in one lifetime, or in a few. For such gigantic task countless lives must be required, each life but one step in the long climbing upward. Each life should garner some fresh experience, should add some new capacity or strengthen some budding force; thus is builded up through numberless generations the Perfect Man. Hence the doctrine of Re-incarnation is the very core and essence of Theosophy, and according to the hold this belief has on life, so will be the grasp of the learner on all Theosophic truth.
The term Re-incarnation - expressive as it is of the encasing of the Ego in the man of flesh - is very often misunderstood. It implies the indwelling of the Ego in many successive personalities, but it does not imply the possibility of its incarnation in the brute. In many places and at many times this travesty of the doctrine has prevailed, and it has been taught that the re-incarnating Ego may, as penalty for the transgressions of the human personality with which it has been linked, be flung into the vortex of the brute world and inform some lower animal. But this idea is against Theosophical teaching, according to which the Manasic entity can inhabit only man; it is, indeed, the indwelling of this entity which is the distinction between the man and the brute, a distinction which is ever preserved.
There is no doctrine in the range of philosophy which throws so much light on the tangled web of human life as does this doctrine of Re-incarnation. Take, for instance, the immense difference in capacity and in character found within the limits of the human race. In all plants and in all animals the characteristic qualities of a species may vary, but within comparatively narrow limits; so also with man, so far as his outer form, his instincts, and his animal passions, are concerned. They vary of course, as those of the brute vary, but their broad outline remains the same. But when we come to study the differences of mental capacity and moral character, we are struck with the vast distances that separate man from man. Between the savage, counting five upon his fingers, and the Newton who calculates the movements of a planet and predicts its course, how wide and deep a gulf as to intellect! between a barbarian dancing gleefully round the bleeding body of his foe, as he mangles and torments the living tissues, and the Howard who gives his life to save and aid the lowest fallen of his people, how vast the difference as to character! And this leaves out of account those living men, who are as far ahead of Newton and of Howard as these are above the least evolved of our race. Whence the great divergencies, unparalleled among the rest of the organisms on our globe? Why is man alone so diverse? Theosophy points in answer to the re-incarnation of the Ego, and sees in the differing stages of experience reached by that Ego the explanation of the differing intellectual and moral capacities of the personality. "Baby Egos" - as I have heard H. P. Blavatsky call them with reference to their lack of human experience - inform the little-evolved humanity, while those who dwell in the more highly developed races are those who have already garnered much rich harvest of past experience and have thereby become capable of more rapid growth.
Ego that has completed a span of earth-life, and has shaken off the
To how many of the problems that vex thinkers to-day by the apparent hopelessness of their solution, is an explanation suggested if, for the moment, Re-incarnation be accepted even as a possible hypothesis. Within the limits of a family hereditary physical likeness, often joined by startling mental and moral divergencies; twins, alike as far as regards heredity and pre-natal environment, yet showing in some cases strong resemblance, in others no less dissimilarity. Cases of precocity, where the infant brain manifests the rarest capacities precedent to all instruction. Cases of rapid gain of knowledge, where the knowledge seems to be remembered rather than acquired, recognised rather than learned. Cases of intuition, startling in their swiftness and lucidity, insight clear and rapid into complicated problems without guide or teacher to show the way. All these and many another similar puzzles receive light from the idea of the persistent individual that informs each personality, and it is a well-known principle in seeking for some general law underlying a mass of apparently unrelated phenomena that the hypothesis which explains most, brings most into accord with an intelligible sequence, is the one most likely to repay further investigation.
To those, again, who shrink from the idea that the Universe is one vast embodiment of injustice, the doctrine of Re-incarnation comes as a mental relief from well-nigh unbearable strain. When we see the eager mind imprisoned in an inefficient body; when we note the differences of mental and moral capacity that make all achievement easy to one, impossible to others; when we come across what seems to be undeserved suffering, disadvantageous circumstances; when we feel longings after heights unattainable for lack of strength; then the knowledge that we create our own character, that we have made our own strength or our own weakness, that we are not the sport of an arbitrary God or of a soulless Destiny, but are verily and indeed the creators of ourselves and of our lot in life - this knowledge comes to us as a support and an inspiration, giving energy to improve and courage to endure.
This immutable law of cause and effect is spoken of as Karma (action) in Theosophy. Each action - using the word to include all forms of activity, mental, moral, physical - is a cause and must work out its full effect. Effect as regards the past, it is cause as regards the future, and under this sway of Karmic law moves the whole life of man as of all worlds. Every debt incurred must be duly paid in this or in some other life, and as the wheel of life turns round it brings with it the fruit of every seed that we have sown. Re-incarnation under Karmic law, such is the message of Theosophy to a Christendom which relies on a vicarous atonement and a swift escape to Paradise when the grave closes on the dead. Re-incarnation under Karmic law, until the fruit of every experience has been gathered, every blunder rectified, every fault eradicated; until compassion has been made perfect, strength unbreakable, tenderness complete, self-abnegation the law of life, renunciation for others the natural and joyous impulse of the whole nature.
But how, it may be asked, can you urge to effort, or press responsibility, if you regard every action as one link in an infrangible chain of cause and effect? The answer lies in the sevenfold nature of man, in the action of the higher on the lower. The freewill of man on this plane is lodged in the Manasic entity, which acts on his lower nature. Absolute freewill is there none, save in the Unconditioned. When manifestation begins, the Universal Will becomes bound and limited by the laws of Its own manifestation, by the fashion of the expression It has chosen as its temporary vehicle. Conditioned, it is limited by the conditions It has imposed on Itself, manifesting under garb of the universe in which It wills to body Itself forth. On each plane Its expression is limited by the capacities of Its embodiments. Now the Manasic entity in its own sphere is the reflexion, the image, of the Universal Will in Kosmos. So far as the personality is concerned, the promptings, the impulses, from the Manasic plane are spontaneous, have every mark of freedom, and if we start from the lowest plane of objective nature, we shall see how relative freedom is possible. If a man be loaded with chains, his muscles will be limited in their power of movement. They are constrained m their expression by the dead weight of iron pressing upon them; yet the muscular force is there, although denied outward expression, and the iron cannot prevent the straining of the fibres against the force used in their subdual. Again, some strong emotion, some powerful impulse from the Kama-Manasic plane, may hold rigid the muscles under lesion that would make every fibre contract and pull the limb away from the knife. The muscles are compelled from the plane above them, the personal will being free to hold them rigid or leave them to their natural reaction against injury. From the standpoint of the muscles the personal will is free, and it cannot be controlled save as to its material expression on the material plane. When the Manasic entity sends impulse downwards to the lower nature with which it is linked, conflict arises between the animal desire and the human will. Its interferences appear to the personality as spontaneous, free, uncaused by any actions on the lower plane; and so they are, for the causes that work on it are of the higher not the lower planes. The animal passions and desires may limit its effective expression on their own plane, but they cannot either prompt or prevent its impulses; man's true freedom is found when his lower nature puts itself into line with the higher, and gives free course to the will of the higher Ego. And so with that Ego itself: able to act freely on the planes below it, it finds its best freedom as channel of the Universal Will from which it springs, the conscious willing harmony with the All of which it is part. An effect cannot be altered when the cause has appeared; but that effect is itself to be a cause, and here the will can act. Suppose a great sorrow falls on some shrinking human heart; the effect is there, cannot be avoided, but its future result as cause may be one of two things; Kama may rebel, the whole personal nature may rise in passionate revolt, and so, warring against the Higher Will, the new cause generated will be of disharmony, bearing in its womb new evil to be born in days to come. But Kama may range itself obediently with Karmic action it may patiently accept the pain, joyfully unite itself to the Higher Will, and so make the effect as cause to be pregnant with future good.
Remains but space for one last word on that which is Theosophy in action - the Universal Brotherhood of Man. This teaching is the inevitable outcome of the doctrines of the One Universal Spirit common to all, humanity, Re-incarnation and Karma. Every distinction of race and sex, of class and creed, fades away before the essential unity of the indwelling spirit, before the countless incarnations under all forms of outward garmenture, making the experience of prince and beggar part of the training of all in turn. Here is to be found the motive-spring of action - love for all mankind. In each child of man the true Theosophist recognises a brother to be loved and served, and in the Theosophical Society, Theosophists, under the direction of the Masters, have formed a nucleus for such Brother- hood of Humanity, and have made its recognition the only obligation binding on all who enter. Amid class hatreds and warring sects it raises this sublime banner of human love, a continual reminder that essentially all humanity is one, and that the goal to which we travel is the same for all. Without this recognition of Brotherhood all science is useless and all religion is hypocrisy. Deeper than all diversity, mightier than all animosity, is that Holy Spirit of Love. The Self of each is the Higher Self of all, and that bond is one which nothing in all worlds can avail to break. That which raises one raises all; that which degrades one degrades all. The sin and crime of our race are our sin and crime, and only as we save our brethren can we save ourselves. One in our inception, one in our goal, we must needs be one in our progress; the "curse of separateness" that is on us it is ours to remove, and Theosophy alike as religion and philosophy will be a failure save as it is the embodiment of the life of Love.