from The Theosophist Oct 1971

Theosophical Ontologies

Hugh Shearman

[This article by Dr. Shearman would be regarded by some readers of THE THEOSOPHIST as controversial. Yet its principal value may consists in inviting attention to the very points or issues, the statement of which might be upsetting to settled views of one sort or another, held by them. Truth, at whatever level, need never fear challenge. If one accepts something as Truth, he may be content with it, despite any questionings - until he himself sees differently. - Ed]


A SUBSTANTIAL part of the literature that has come from the Theosophical Society has taken the form of works which have embodied what may be called an ontology, a description of being, of the universe and of the nature of existence. In this The Secret Doctrine stands out as an early and monumental example in a long series.

Yet such an ontology is not so much the contents of one book as the whole output of an individual author, with all its implications. The Secret Doctrine is part of a great corpus of related literature which came from Madame Blavatsky. We can see extensions of it, not only in various other books and articles which she wrote, but in the Mahatma Letters, with respect to which she was the medium and means of transmission, and also in certain partly derivative works within the same field of influence, such as A. P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism.

Similarly a great part of the literary output of Bishop Leadbeater took the form of what may be called an ontology, a description of the nature of existence. His ontology was more personally his own and depended more on individual experience than was the case with that of Madame Blavatsky. For portions of it he also had corroboration in the experiences of a much wider range of other people then she had. Much that he wrote is capable of being verified by his readers if they will take the necessary and, to ordinary human nature, uncongenially difficult steps.

As well as these two ontologies associated with the names and personalities of Madame Blavatsky and Bishop Leadbeater, there have been many others propounded by other members of the Society, often consisting to some extent, usually a very large extent, of material quarried from the two already cited. But for purpose of discussion it may be best here to relate any observations to these two and seek any detailed examples within them.

For every member of the Theosophical Society certain questions are bound to arise about the ontological systems propounded by their fellow members, past and present. The first question is probably, "Are these things true?" And then, "Is this Theosophy?" And, "How far can the Theosophical Society allow itself to become identified with the propounding and publicizing of any one such system of ontology?"

The key to the whole problem posed by the descriptive writings of Madame Blavatsky, Bishop Leadbeater and others in the Society must lie in the sense in which we put that question, "Are these things true?" If we are going to take it as asking whether they are scientifically and factually true, then the answer to the question must surely be that they are true only in parts and only in a qualified sense.

Each such ontology comes to us through a particular personality, expressed in the idiom of that personality and of the age in which that person wrote. It may come from deep realities shared, largely unconsciously, by all humanity; but it emerges filtered through the conceptual limitations, the temperamental conditionings and the prejudices of a particular personality.

Those close to Madame Blavatsky were very much aware of the extent to which her own strong prejudices affected the descriptive material that came from her. Thus the accounts of after-death conditions in her own direct writings and in the Mahatma Letters clash very emphatically, not only with what Bishop Leadbeater and other members of the Society later described, but also with descriptions given by psychics quite unconnected with the Society.

Here is how A. P. Sinnett, to whom the bulk of the still surviving Mahatma Letters were addressed, assessed the descriptive material that was in them and Madame Blavatsky's influence upon it. He said:

"They contained masses of information concerning the natural truths that have since become the fundamental ideas underlying Theosophy, which were previously as unknown to Madame Blavatsky as to myself. Reincarnation, karma , the planetary chains, the succession of the root races, the sub-races and so on, were not tampered with. Madame Blavatsky did not know enough about them at that time to make it possible for her to import confusion into information on these subjects which passed through her hands. But unhappily she had contracted - under conditions I will not attempt to elucidate - a bitter detestation of spiritualism, and sometimes when the letters touched on after-death conditions she wove this feeling into them. The result was dreadfully misleading and the consequences very deplorable". (A.P Sinnett, The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe , p.28)

This view of the Mahatma Letters, held by the chief recipient of them, was in harmony with the view of them held by others close to clearly events in the Society's history. (THE THEOSOPHIST, June 1967, p.152 et seq.) It agrees indeed with Madame Blavatsky's own statement that "it is hardly one out of a hundred occult letters that is ever written by the hand of the Master in whose name and on whose behalf they are sent", (Lucifer, iii, 93) and she said to Frau Gebhard that she had "used Master's name when I thought my authority would go for nought" and that some letters contained "ideas and expressions out of my head". (C. Jinarajadasa,The Early Teaching of the Masters, foreword, p.x)

In value judgments, Madame Blavatsky's emotional nature was swept and tossed by many vehemently held prejudices. Some of her views about her contemporaries in the scientific world were very much less than just; and her strong prejudice against the Catholic Church is well known. So strong was this that in one of her letters to Sinnett she not only ascribed the troubles in Ireland at that time to the Jesuits but seemed ready to believe the absurd rumor that Mr. Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, had been received into the Roman Catholic Church by the Pope in person. (The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, letter 106)

It was perhaps hard for her as a member of the possessing class in pre-Revolutionary Russia to appreciate that the troubles in Ireland arose from the oppression and insecurity which the mass of people there suffered at the hands of their landlords. One of the strongest evidences which she offered of Gladstone's readiness to favor the cause of the Jesuits was that he had extended the franchise to give votes to working men. By contrast she praised the German Chancellor, Prince Bismarck, the apostle of "blood and iron", as the "greatest and most farseeing of men". Repeatedly, if things were not to her liking, Christian clergymen, and more particularly Roman Catholic clergymen, had to carry the blame.

Some of these unbalanced attitudes also entered the Mahatma Letters. It is interesting that two of the letters in which such prejudice is most clearly expressed are of dubious authority and provenance. One is Letter 10 which exists only in the handwriting of Mr. Sinnett and is not actually a letter but consists of notes on something written by A. O. Hume. It is headed with the word "abridged". The other is Letter 134, in which Madame Blavatsky claimed to "translate" the meaning of the Master M. The authenticity of this letter was later denied by Colonel Olcott. (THE THEOSOPHIST, April 1895). In other respects, also, the material which Madame Blavatsky gave to the world is conditioned by her temperament, her personality, her expectations and the inevitable limits of her very extensive knowledge and experience. In general terms she was always ready to admit that this was so.

Similarly the ontology set forth in Bishop Leadbeater's work is obviously very much conditioned by the kind of person he was, the thought idiom in which he expressed himself, the values of the age in which he lived. His writings today are those of a man who obtained nearly all his formal education over a hundred years ago.

So far as his writings describe things relatively close at hand, the psychic realm that lies beyond the physical, the invisible anatomy of mankind and the "hidden side of things", what he has said responds admirably to the demands of other people's experience. In these fields he differed from Madame Blavatsky in that he was dealing with material which can to some extent be verified by others, whereas she confined herself to the perhaps safer field of things large, relatively remote and incapable of testing. But it is when Bishop Leadbeater dealt with things remote in time and space that he too, like Madame Blavatsky, has aroused scepticism. Modern approaches to dating and timing the past or assessing the likelihood of physical life on other planets are at least not providing confirmation of what he wrote, and current progress in atomic physics and aeronautics, to say nothing of other human activities, does not square well with his account well with his account of the state of these pursuits some centuries in the future. The most that one can perhaps claim for some of what he wrote is that he perceived in general terms something that was true but clothed it - and how could anybody do otherwise? - in the details of his own experiences and thought images.

One of the most interesting aspects of Bishop Leadbeater's ontology was his description of "atoms". What he described, however, has no correlation with the discoveries of modern physicists. It is often pointed out that the kind of atom that he described was very like that speculatively sketched by a writer called Edwin D. Babbitt who published in New York in 1878 a book entitled The Principles of Light and Color Bishop Leadbeater quite openly referred to Babbitt's work on a number of occasions, and there was no question of his plagiarizing surreptitiously from Babbitt. It would seem that he had a certain experience with regard to the nature of matter and bodied it forth in the idiom and thought images of the age in which he had grown up. In extending, with Mrs. Besant, a system of occult chemistry, he was particularly influenced by the periodic law first expounded by Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev in 1879 and developed by Sir William Crookes, who joined the Theosophical Society on the same day as the young C.W Leadbeater system seems to have no place for isotopes.

For a discussion of the relationship between the Leadbeater atom and the Babbitt atom any interested reader might well refer to a fairly recent issue of the Science Group Journal (Summer, 1970) of the Research Centre of the Theosophical Society in England, where Dr. E. Lester Smith, F.R.S, shows that Bishop Leadbeater made a much more complex and subtle atomic model Babbitt and developed a system of occult chemistry which owed nothing at all to Babbitt. Dr. Lester Smith's conclusion about the matter is that "Babbitt got his vision of the atom from some reality in the inner worlds, and I accept that C.W.L. and A.B did the same".

The descriptive structures or ontologies which Madame Blavatsky and Bishop Leadbeater have left us seem each to have come as a great outpouring from "Nature" or the "collective unconscious", each emerging through a markedly different temperament and mode of expression. To say this is not at all to dismiss the various explanation. To say this is not at all to dismiss the various explanations that have been given of how they came to be written down. What is important is that each came from an individual's contact with certain realities which are inherent in Nature, and so each carries both the pattern of an individual temperament and the pattern of Nature's laws.

It has often been noted that parts of Madame Blavatsky's writings have found echoes in later developments of Science and philosophy. As Dr. C.E. M Joad wrote, "It is interesting to note how many of the novelties which have been put forward by philosophers in the twentieth century appear in her work" (The Aryan Path, viii, 202)

A similar correspondence with the later thought systems of others has been noted in the writings of Bishop Leadbeater. Count Keyserling in his Travel Diary of a Philosopher wrote that, however wonderful Bishop Leadbeater's account of inner worlds might seem, - he who reads what C.W. Leadbeater has to say about these spheres can scarcely doubt that he is at home in them, for all his statements are so plausible that it would be more wonderful if Leadbeater were in the wrong".

And Keyserling went on:

"I find his writings, of all publications of this kind, the most instructive, despite their often childish character. He is the only one who observes more or less scientifically, the only one who describes in simple straightforward language. Furthermore he is in his ordinary intellect not sufficiently gifted to invent what he claims to see, nor like Rudolf Steiner to elaborate it intellectually in such a way that it would be difficult to distinguish actual experience from accretions. Intellectually he is hardly equal to the task. Nevertheless I find again and again statements in his writings which are either probable in themselves or which answer to philosophical truths. What he perceives in his own way (often without understanding it) is full of meaning. Therefore he must have observed actual phenomena".

Yet these two Theosophical ontologies associated with the names of these two great occultists are by no means consistent with one another at all points, nor are they always consistent with descriptions now given by Science. Each presents a partial model of existence, but in neither case does the model respond in all respects to the demands of other people's experience. And the author of each ontology seems to have accepted that this was and ought to be so.

There are those who regard these ontologies, these descriptions of the nature of things, as constituting "Theosophy", who indeed believe that time will show one or both of them to be factually true in nearly all respects, and who treat the Theosophical Society as if its purpose was to convert people to a belief in the truth of these and other similar models that have been presented within the Society. With great respect, the writer of this article cannot bring himself to feel that "Theosophy" consists of descriptions or of the contents of a literature. Theosophy, of which all these things are expressions and sign-postings, has to be sought out in experience by each individual. It is not something that has been found by somebody else and can be taught to others.

Only in a very relative sense can these splendid ontologies be regarded as "true". After all, there are valid experiences in the lives of many of us which show us that what have been regarded as quite fundamental Theosophical "teachings" are only relatively true. For example, there is a certain experience of occult or higher consciousness, in which we are momentarily freed from the notion that one thing has to happen after another in time. The notion of succession in time is inherent, however, in the way in which nearly all descriptive Theosophy it set forth. It cannot be done in any other way in contemporary human language. The three fundamental propositions in the Proem of The Secret Doctrine depend, as they are set out in words, upon the notion of succession; and yet if, even for a moment, we experience a state of higher consciousness in which that notion falls away from us, those propositions cease to be true in the sense in which we had perhaps formerly imagined them to be true.

Theosophy, true wisdom, cannot be caught or conveyed by any ontological system or any exposition of the nature of things. It cannot be "disseminated". It is to be found rather in a stripping away of ontological concepts till a living reality dominates our lives, our sympathies and thoughts, and we become, as Madame Blavatsky put it, "a mere beneficent in Nature".

But there are those - they include most of us - who want some preliminary reconciling framework of thought and explanation to hold them steady as the stripping of personal values begins; and they may well find what they need in either or both of these large and noble ontological structures associated with the names of Bishop Leadbeater or Madame Blavatsky, taking what is useful and what responds to inner experience and leaving the rest aside without prejudice. Indeed we have so far only scratched the surface of the immense store of illumination that these models or interpretations of reality hold for us. That store, however, is to be extracted, not by formal study, but by so living that what is at first the external authority of others becomes transformed into and ultimately lost in the firm stuff of direct experience.

It is not the duty of the Theosophical Society to come before the world as a body committed to the advocacy of any particular ontology. Indeed the Society has suffered much by becoming identified in the public mind from time to time with some particular ontological notion, such as Reincarnation, a belief in Mahatmas and so on. Some of this misunderstanding is inevitable; but it does seem that Theosophy and the Society have been excessively identified with specific "teachings" of an ontological nature. This has been rather a barrier to some whose way of growth into wisdom and into Theosophy is not along those lines. There are those, for example, for whom the reconciling framework is to be found, not in descriptive teachings, but in artistic response to Nature, or in sacrament or ceremony, or in practical human service, or in the pursuit of some subject like medicine or mathematics into its deeper implications. They have something to give and something to receive within the brotherhood of the Theosophical Society; but if the Society is devoted wholly to propounding a descriptive approach to Theosophy, such people are lost to it and it to them. Bishop Leadbeater in his writings used often to refer to "the student". But most people are not students, and the Theosophical Society, though it encourages study, is not a Society for "book worms" only. It is intended for humanity in all its temperamental variety.

And even within the limits of what can be put into books there is danger of excessive stress upon descriptive writings drawing attention unjustly away from other kinds of literary approach to Theosophy. We have, for example, the writings of our present President which do not constitute a philosophical system but offer a wide variety of deep philosophical insights into something greater than any system. They propound no ontology but invite us to a perpetually fresh discovery of the subtle and pervasive presence and power of the Universal in every particular of life. What a pity if his writings are neglected by anybody merely because they do not purport to tell us just what happens to us after we die or how many planetary hierarchies there are! What a pity too, if the huge body of wise and perceptive essays written by our former President, Mr. C. Jinarajadasa, should be neglected because too many are content to read only his First Principles of Theosophy and think of him thereafter as a man of one book.

The future of the Theosophical Society must depend, not upon a body of literature, but upon Theosophists. And Theosophists are of value, not for their opinions or their ontological structures, but for the extent to which they can embody something that is beyond and greater than all systems or descriptions. Indeed our various Theosophical ontologies are deeply united in one teaching. They all, in various fashions, declare that the principle or aspect of human nature which alone gives us value and significance is beyond that mind in us which creates systems, which depends upon other people's descriptions or is concerned with comparing one teaching disadvantageously with an other. Though we are still only momentarily conscious of it here, that which unites humanity is one Life which lives through all things. Theosophy is discovered by letting that Life consciously and expressively take over our lives; but only to a very few, such as Madame Blavatsky or Bishop Leadbeater, is given the impossible task of trying to put anything of this into words.


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