from The Theosophist May 1976

Culture and the Ancient Wisdom

Hugh Shearman

We are living at a time when much attention - though most of it very superficial - is given to what we conventionally all "culture". In the more developed countries there is wider and easier access than ever before to literature of all kinds, to music, art, ideas and all those amenities which we loosely speak of as cultural. Ours seems to be in many respects a silver age for culture rather then a golden one, an age of reproduction and proliferation rather than of great original creation. We approach all this culture extensively rather than intensively. There never was a time when the great classics of literature were so readily available in cheap reprints, but these are probably more often hopefully bought than enjoyable read. Sheer quantity crowds out quality of response.

We should probably agree that culture ought to be a matter of sympathies and perceptions. The cultured person is able to bring to every encounter and experience a wider context of related meanings and hence a subtler and more complete appreciation.

It is pleasant to have read widely and perhaps in several languages and to be able to see the same fundamental human aspirations, qualities and situations revealed in a fascinating variety of forms. The pleasures afforded by literature are further extended by a capacity to respond to nay of the arts and sciences.

In the universities of western countries the place in culture one occupied by the disciplined study of the Greek and Latin classics seems to have been taken over for many students by the study of history. Through this, our sense of identity becomes extended and diffused into the past and perhaps, we may think, a little into the future. We feel larger for it.

These cultural interests can not only broaden and enhance our lives but they also unite those who pursue them, for people are united by shared experience. We, therefore, tend to concur in a generally held view that what we call culture is a good and commendable feature of our individual and social lives.

Yet there must be time when we question the value and purpose of all this activity. Even if we pursue culture in some refined and respected form, it cannot have escaped our recognition that it has a disturbing resemblance to its own superficial and often obsessive counterparts in other people's lives, such as reading meretricious novels or watching innumerable rather foolish television programmes. Is our absorption in literature, music or art really so different in kin from the absorption that captivates the alcoholic or any other addict? After all, the shared experiences of the tavern have also traditionally united mankind.

Whether we crop it discriminatingly or carelessly, intensively or superficially, culture is a field without boundaries. Wandering across its vastness, we seem to arrive nowhere in particular, and many in their ineffectual wandering through the cultural scene have a lost look. Even those who appear purposeful and confident in the world of culture seem rarely to know where they are going. So much of our scholarship and research seems to become an inexplicable end in itself, and we often labour with enormous earnestness to discover truths that we do not really want to possess, while we refrain from applying the truths that we have already discovered.

What, then, has the Theosophist to say about this glamorous and captivating aspect of human experience and activity?

Down the ages the wise have attempted from time to time to describe the phases and stages of human experience and how these lead on one to another. Mankind, however, is usually so absorbed in the experiences of the moment as to be incapable of recognizing them from any description made of them from outside, and even more incapable of imagining some further phase or order of experience to which these might lead on. But if we are ourselves just a little disillusioned with aspects of the civilization in which we are at the moment involved, it may be possible for us to look again at some of those descriptions that come from the ancient wisdom and to see that they are indeed applicable to our present dissatisfaction and can point for us a way forwards to a more real fulfilment.

One such listing of successive stages of experience must be familiar to many who have glanced at the popular, not to say the classical, literature of yoga, and yet its importance and significance may have escaped them. It is the well known list of four states of consciousness - jagrat, svapna, susupti and turiya - usually, and perhaps not very helpfully, described as waking, dreaming, deep sleep and a fourth state beyond these. The westerner, in particular, probably extracts little meaning from these descriptions but perhaps vaguely hopes that they represent something that might in some way happen to him if he sits down conscientiously each day before breakfast, shuts his eyes and tries to practise what he imagines to be yoga!

In Mrs. Besant's Introduction to Yoga these four states are mentioned only as states of individual consciousness and are related to "planes" of consciousness. Lately, however, Dr. I. K Taimni has been making available to us several valuable and illuminating sets of aphorisms on yoga, giving very free and explanatory translations or elaborations of the Sanskrit. In his version of one of these, Siva-Sutra, there occurs a description of those four states of consciousness which brings out how universal they are and how fundamental to the whole human experience.

The four states are described and explained by Dr. Taimni as follows:

"The jagrat or waking state of consciousness comprises, in its widest sense, all knowledge when the subjective Self is in direct contact with the objective world around him.

"The svapna or dream state of consciousness comprises, in its widest sense all knowledge when the subjective Self is engaged in mental activity in isolation from the objective world.

"The susupti or dreamless state of consciousness comprises, in its widest sense, all knowledge vitiated by Maya or illusion in the realm of mind. He in whose consciousness all these three states have fused into one state can wield all power in the realm of manifestation".

Very simply, in the jagrat or waking state we give attention to objects. In the svapna or dream state we give attention to images of objects. In the susupti, dreamless, or deep sleep state we give attention to an image of all objects. In the turiya or fourth state the image has been dropped; subject and object, and all states and conditions arising from their separation and interplay, are no more; and there is only the Real.

In this classification, culture as we know it is surely an expression of humanity's involvement in the svapna or dream state. In our cultural pursuits we are not concerned with objects so much as with mental or emotional images of objects and the values that we have projected onto them. We are concerned with symbols, implications and interpretations of the objective world. And give attention to these from the point of view of individual and, to some extent, acquisitive and competitive selves.

What we have to move on towards is a susupti state in which we appreciate this whole realm of culture as an expression of a single reality, as embodying one meaning and one purpose of us all. How we do this or move towards it from our present situation is a matter of temperament. Perhaps for the philosopher all concepts become one vast concept, and for the lover all loves become one love. But even this is still illusion. Beyond it there is the unimaginable annihilation of separation, when the concept is dropped, lover and love are one, and there is only the real.

In terms of this view of states of consciousness, our culture is a respectable beginning but not very advanced in the scale of things. It is a preparatory school of life in which minds play with the images of objects and learn something from such exercise. And in our civilization we can still communicate with others only in terms of this play.

Students of theosophical literature will see correlations between the four states of consciousness and the four yugas. They will see how lives could be said to descend unconsciously through the four states or the four yugas, to reascend through them consciously, thus passing through the seven phases indicated in that well-known diagram which has no often been used to clarify teachings about rounds, globes and cycles. But our problem is that we have descended, and we are here and now in the midst of this culture as we know it, and we, therefore, think in terms of liberation and ascent.

Early in the first Fragment in The Voice of the Silence there is a reference to "three Halls" which clearly carries implications for our culture and civilization similar to those here suggested as being implicit in the concept of the four states of consciousness. We are told," Three Halls, O conqueror of Mara, will bring thee through three states into the fourth, and thence into the seven words, the worlds of Rest Eternal". The first Hall is a place of ignorance. "It is the Hall in which thou saw'st the light, in which thou livest and shalt die". "The name of Hall the second is the Hall of Learning. In it thy Soul will find the blossoms of life, but under every flower a serpent coiled". Though this seems a gloomy view, the imagery used here conveys a just description of our culture. It is a vast market for the interchange of images, where all is linked by reactive karma, where every glamorous purchase is paid for in ultimate disillusionment and there is no basis security or rest.

The third Hall is that of Wisdom, "beyond which stretch the shoreless waters of Akshara, the indestructible fount of omniscience". Certain warnings are given about the first two Halls:

"If thou would'st cross the first Hall safely, let not thy mind mistake the fires of lust that burn therein for the sunlight of life. If thou would'st cross the second safely, stop not the fragrance of its stupefying blossoms to inhale. If freed thou would'st be from the karmic chains, seek not for the Guru in those Mayavic regions. The wise ones tarry not in pleasure grounds of senses. The wise ones heed not the sweet-tongued voices of illusion. Seek for him, who is to give thee birth, in the Hall of Wisdom, the Hall that lies beyond, wherein all shadows are unknown, and where the light of truth shines with unfading glory".

Thinking it over makes clear how true these warnings are and how deeply relevant they are to so much of our culture and our current civilization. We are in the Hall of Learning, and the images which we find there are alive with invitation to us to become obsessively fixated in one way or another, to become caught in the reactive thraldom of endless pursuit, to surrender our lives to purposeless addiction. Yet culture has its place and purpose. If we watch and learn, observing the character of these dangers and their source in our own natures, we can pass on through the Hall of Learning and begin to intuit the processes of life as forming one whole.

The wise do not try to dissipate culture but seek rather to manipulate it in such a way as to lead people on through it to wisdom and liberation. Over half a century ago in The Theosophist we had a number of articles from the late Dr. Weller van Hook referring to glimpses he had had of this hidden work and in particular the work of a great Adept whom he called the Lord of the western cultural system. Such a work has to go on all the time, and it is necessarily limited or assisted by the quality of life and response that we ourselves contribute to the cultural world around us.

Particularly important is the warning in The Voice of the Silence not to seek the Wise Ones at the merely conventional level of culture. Many pursue Theosophy in one of its many forms as only another cultural experience among a diversity of such experiences, only another stimulating interest. But we have not begun to understand Theosophy until we see in it a means to end the pointlessness of moving from one interest to another, one book to another, one television programme to another, one cult or personality to another. It is an assertion that there is one purpose, not to be put into words in the language of a world of innumerable confused purposes but to be felt more and more, one inner purpose underlying and shaping all that we seek and do.

In the Hall of Learning, in the state of dreaming, "the sweet-tongued voices of illusion" speak with great authority and solemnity; and the Wise Ones can do little for those who listen to those diverse and inherently contradictory voices. They can say only, "Come out of your world into ours". It is when we have abandoned most of the yearnings and outpassed the allurements, not only of barbarism, but of culture as well, and when the many voiced of the world of images and values begin to yield to the one voice of the Silence, that we can be admitted to the Hall of Wisdom and glimpse ahead" the shoreless waters".