The Singapore Lodge Theosophical Society
The following articles are reproduced from the February 2020 Newsletter to members. Non-members may or may not be able to relate to the contents.
A Rough Outline of Theosophy — Part I
By Annie Besant
IN 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 doctrine 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 lamblichus. 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, 2). Clemens Alexandrinus and Origen both recognised 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 core 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 wizards were the finger-posts that marked the way. Passing strange it is 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 wellnigh 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 where-ever 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 our 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 today, as of old, in the hands of a mighty Brotherhood, variously spoken of as Adepts, Arhats, 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 passed beyond all desires of the personal self.
The 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 today, Theosophy speaks far more openly than it has ever done before, owing to the simple fact that, with the evolution of the race, man has become more and more fitted to be the recipient of such knowledge, so that what would once be taught to only a small minority may now find a wider field. Some of the doctrine is now thrown broadcast, so that all who can receive it may; but the keys which unlock the Mysteries are still committed but to few hands, hands too well tried to tremble under their weight, or to let them slip from either weakness or treachery. As of old, so now, the Secret Wisdom is guarded, not by the arbitrary consent or refusal of the Teachers to impart instruction, but by the capacity of the student to understand and to assimilate.
Theosophy postulates the existence of an eternal Principle, known only through its effects. No words can describe It, for words imply discrimination, 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 Unmanifested, 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 world; 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 center 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 recognize 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.
Each 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 eyes, hear sounds inaudible to physical ears. Not real? What is real? Some people confine the real to the tangible, and only believe in the existence of a thing that can knock them down with a lesion to prove the striking. But an emotion can slay as swiftly as an arrow; a thought can cure with as much certainty as a drug. All the mightiest forces are those which are invisible on this plane, visible though they be to senses subtler than our own. Take the case of a soldier who, in the mad passion of slaughter, the lust for blood, is wounded in the onward charge, and knows not the wounding till his passions cool and the fight is over; his consciousness during the fight is transferred to the fourth plane, that of the emotions and passions, and it is not till it returns from that to the plane of the physical body that pain is felt. So again will a great philosopher, his consciousness rising to the plane of intelligence, becomes wholly abstracted — as we well say — from the physical plane; brooding over some deep problem, he forgets all physical wants, all bodily appetites, and becomes concentrated entirely on the thought-plane, the fifth, in Theosophic parlance.
TO BE CONTINUED...