WHAT IS THEOSOPHY? by R. Machell 1920
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THE student of Theosophy is continually met by the very natural and reasonable inquiry, 'What is Theosophy?' and those who ask the question invariably seem to expect a precise and definite answer to all their own personal doubts and difficulties, of which the Theosophist is naturally not fully informed. So the answer is seldom satisfactory. For while a sincere student of Theosophy may know what the subject means to him, he cannot know what lies behind the inquiry, which sounds so simple.
And yet every genuine student of Theosophy must be most anxious to answer the question, even if it be only to satisfy his own mind. He may know that in finding Theosophy he has found an open door that has allowed him to escape from a prison-house of pessimism out to an open land, where the sun shines and the air is fresh and free: but to say so is no answer to the persistent query, 'What is Theosophy?' He may feel that he has gained a new point of view, from which to judge the whole problem of life, and he may feel confident that the knowledge of the existence of Theosophy would end the pessimism of any earnest investigator. But to make such declaration would seem like an evasion of the apparently simple and straightforward question that meets us at every turn.
The word 'Theosophy' is composed of two Greek words, theos and sophia, which may be interpreted in various ways: for it is quite open to question whether our words 'God' and 'wisdom' are sufficient or equivalent to the two Greek words; and when they are combined, the possibility of misunderstanding increases. 'God-wisdom' is not explanatory, for the word 'God' may be taken to mean a god, one of many, or God the supreme intelligence of the universe; it may mean a great soul supreme in the spiritual world, an entity, even a personality; or it may be regarded as a pure abstraction incapable of definition. And the word 'wisdom' is also capable of widely different interpretations. Certainly, to tell an inquirer that Theosophy is divine wisdom, will be to convey an idea of ridiculous arrogance on the part of the student of Theosophy, who will seem to be claiming for himself god-like wisdom. And yet the name is a good one dating back to the time of the Greek philosophers, who, by their interminable discussions, at least familiarized the public of their day with the use of such terms, even if their lucubrations served more to confuse the subject than to enlighten the general public.
Of course an earnest inquirer will soon find out for himself what Theosophy is; at least he will find out what it means to him: but before entering upon a serious consideration of a subject, any person is likely to ask what it is, before deciding to examine it for himself. And, as a vague or an unsatisfactory answer may serve to discourage further inquiry or more serious study, it is well to try to formulate in one's own mind some simple answer to the question. Indeed, I think that a true student will be trying to do this all the time.
When one has read one's first handbook on any subject, one is apt to feel that one knows all about it; and it is at this elementary stage that the most misleading as well as the most positive explanations are generally offered: for a little knowledge makes a man bold; much study makes him cautious.
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Then another consideration comes to check the too ready answer, that words have widely different meanings to different minds; and that the simplest form of words may be the most confusing. To people who are not sure whether Theosophy is a new food or a new religion, a diet or a cult, it may be sufficient to say that it is the whole philosophy of life: but to those who are aware that there are many religions in the world, each claiming to be a sufficient and inclusive philosophy of life, the answer will not be very helpful. And yet assuredly Theosophy is just that: for it is the fundamental philosophy of life, from which spring all religions and all philosophies, all arts and sciences, all systems of society and all civilizations, together with the vital energizing principle that transforms all these, and in time transmutes their outer bodies, eternally renewing and rejuvenating the form that man's mind invents for the expression of the yearning and the aspiration of his soul.
Does that seem too big a claim to make? Not if the one who makes it is careful to realize that Theosophy itself is not to be contained in any mind, being identical with that from which all separate minds emanate.
A man may be an honest devotee of Truth, but if he believes that he himself knows truth, or even that he knows the whole truth of anything, then he is but a fool. For this reason no true Theosophist would try to bind men's minds by any creed or final formula. An earnest student of Theosophy will guard against dogmatic utterances; and in doing this he may appear uncertain and doubtful, where in reality he is simply trying to avoid forcing his own conviction on another mind that should be encouraged rather to find its own formulas, and to convince itself by its own study and experience. Therefore we must declare that Theosophy is unsectarian; and though all the great religions of the world may have sprung from various aspects of Theosophy, yet that great parent of all philosophies, religions, and sciences is not itself a religion; for it has no creed.
In founding the Theosophical Society, in 1875, Madame Blavatsky gave it the subtitle of Universal Brotherhood; and membership in the Society involved acceptance of this great ideal. When the third Leader of the Theosophical Movement, Katherine Tingley, took control of the Organization, she formulated a constitution for the Universal Brotherhood, in which it was declared that one of the objects of the Organization was to "demonstrate that Brotherhood is a fact in nature"; and acceptance of this ideal is a prerequisite to membership in the Society today.
But the acceptance of an ideal is not the same as the enforcement of a creed, for tolerance of the beliefs of others is also a principle in this constitution: and it is always necessary to remember that Theosophy itself is one thing and a Theosophical society is another. The latter must necessarily have rules and regulations for the conduct of its business; and one of the rules of the Theosophical Society has always been that members "shall show the same tolerance for the beliefs of others which they expect for their own."
Theosophy being, as its name implies, divine wisdom, is necessarily beyond the scope and limitations of a creed. The Theosophist is always open to more light from the source of wisdom, and must never look upon any declaration of belief as a final formula. He is a learner, a student, and not a dogmatist. He is told that the path of wisdom lies through his own heart to the heart of the Universe. And, while he may accept as his Teacher a human being whom he knows or believes to be more spiritually evolved than himself, yet that Teacher is regarded as one who having traveled the path is able to act as guide to other and less experienced travelers who are in search of the light of divine wisdom. Theosophists recognise spiritual teachers, and aspire to the attainment of the same wisdom, which they regard as a mark of a more highly evolved human being. They look upon all mankind as potentially divine, and conceive of evolution as a process of growth towards perfection; in the course of which spiritual enlightenment comes to the human intellect and endows it gradually with true wisdom, which is acquired by means of experience aided by instruction. This growth or evolution is considered as an unfoldment of inner possibilities latent in all.
Thus, while the Theosophist may have a deep respect for his Teacher, he does not mistake a human personality for the Supreme wisdom; and while he highly values the teachings he may receive, he will have no desire to encase them in rigid forms and thus turn them into a creed.
That this has been done in past ages is proved by the existence of sectarian religions today; and that it will be attempted in the future is to be expected from past experience. But the true Theosophist will ever regard creeds and formulas as no more than sign-posts on the road, to be studied perhaps by those who have lost their way, who have not kept the light burning in the heart, and who consequently are in spiritual darkness.
I have seen sign-posts that fell into decay and became illegible; others that had been removed; others that survived long after the path had been abandoned or diverted; others again I have seen preserved as curiosities in museums. And they always make me think of the creeds and dogmas of the churches.
A sign-post is useless to those who are in the dark. What the student wants is light, and Theosophy teaches him to find the light in his own heart. His teachers may give him advice as to how he may find that light, which in most people is obscured by prejudice and ignorance. But if he attempts to guide his steps by the light of any other, he will not get far along the path. A man must do his own growing: he must eat his own food and digest it too. There are many things that a man must do for himself, and traveling along the path of wisdom is one of them.
A flock of sheep will jump over an imaginary barrier if the leader jumps and the barrier be then removed. Cattle will follow their leader and make a tortuous path, having faith in the wisdom of the head of the herd: and human beings act like animals in many ways, being as yet little more than potential humanity. But one who even desires to know what Theosophy is, is already at least approaching the human state, and has developed a certain degree of individual responsibility that differentiates him from the mass who have not yet begun to think for themselves.
As soon as a man begins to wake up from his age-long dream of mere existence, he has to think for himself. Then he wants to know things. And he begins to ask questions, believing that if his questions are honestly answered he will gain the knowledge he desires. That seems reasonable; and yet it is no more reasonable than to suppose that the sight of a dinner will suffice to feed a hungry man. If the man does not eat his food he will die of starvation. And if a man does not assimilate his mental food he will remain ignorant, for all his store of acquired information.
So the man who asks 'What is Theosophy?' must not expect that any answer he may receive will do more than help to put him on the path that will lead him to self-knowledge if he will follow it. He will have to do his own thinking, and his own reading, and his own living; for thinking and reading alone will not suffice for the gaining of wisdom. He must apply his information and instruction to his own life before it can become knowledge to him.
The reason for this becomes apparent to one who accepts the teachings of Theosophy as to the nature and constitution of man: for he will there learn that man, who seems separate from the universe in which he lives, is actually a manifestation of the same laws and the same forces as those that produce that universe: and that all the laws of nature can be, and indeed must be, studied in himself as well as in the world around him; for brotherhood, which is a fact in nature, is but the outer expression of the inward identity of essence of himself and all creatures and the universe that they inhabit.
When first this great idea of human possibilities breaks on the mind, a man may shrink from the vastness of the prospect and think doubtfully of his small personality as a mere mockery of such a revelation. This kind of self-contempt was fostered by many religious orders which sought to separate spirit and matter, debasing man for the greater glory of God — a misconception of humility that is disastrous in its application, and which is really a perversion of a partial truth.
But if the inquirer recovers from this relapse into pessimism and should decide to follow up his first inquiry with a little serious study of the subject, he will promptly encounter the doctrine of continued existence, with its natural corollary of reincarnation or continuous rebirth on earth, insuring a continuity of experience without which all individual progress might seem impossible.
This doctrine of reincarnation presents itself in many ways to many minds. Some grasp it eagerly, as so reasonable and so convincing a solution of innumerable problems, that there is difficulty in understanding how it could have been dispensed with for so long. Others resent it bitterly, as an attack upon their supposed right to enter upon an eternity of bliss, once that this earth-life shall have become unbearable through misunderstanding of its opportunities and through misuse of its experiences. Others again are fascinated with the prospect it affords of endless progress, of evolution, and of perfectibility: but they are not able to accept it on its own merits, and on their own judgment; they want proof, regardless of the impossibility of proving such a theory in any ordinary sense of the word 'proof.' They may see no other theory that will begin to explain the apparent injustice of life, and they may long to be able to believe that reincarnation is a fact, but they ask repeatedly, 'If it be so, why do we not remember our past lives?' A question that should need no more answer than a little reflexion would supply: for memory must necessarily be seriously interfered with by the loss of one body and the acquiring of another, with all that must intervene. Seeing that we generally have no memory to speak of concerning the events that occurred to us in infancy, how can we expect to remember events that happened before the birth of that infant body?
But, though the doctrine of reincarnation seems almost essential to an understanding of man's place in nature, and the purpose of existence, together with the evolution of the race and the position of the individual in the scheme of evolution; yet acceptance of the teaching is not obligatory. There are plenty of people whose minds are so constituted that they seem able to accept doctrines that are entirely unreasonable and even self-contradictory, while another mind must be able to see a good reason for every step in the path of progress. So while reincarnation seems to many a most vital feature of Theosophic teachings, yet it is not to be regarded as a dogma, but rather as a stepping-stone to knowledge.
The mind is so strangely constituted that different individuals are able to reach similar conclusions by entirely different mental paths. Some can pass lightly over unbridged gaps of thought and so reach true conclusions; while others seem unable to look beyond the next step. So it is useless to dogmatize and to imagine that all must accept the doctrines of Karma and Reincarnation, which may seem so essential to some of us. To some it is sufficient to know that the real self of man is pure spirit, that all souls are one in essence; that all material existence is illusory; and that the really vital fact in life is the brotherhood of Being with all that it implies. To others the brotherhood of man seems to depend upon a succession of well-reasoned theories, each of which must be separately established by proof as well as argument before it can be finally accepted.
To some minds no form of thought can appear as a final formula of truth; and still less can a form of words or a creed be accepted as anything more than a temporary expedient, a stepping-stone, to be used and left behind as soon as stepped upon. To others each step must be final, each new formula for expression of truth must be absolute.
To such minds conscious progress is impossible and undesired; it is even, to them, unthinkable; because each step to them is final. The continuity of life, to them, is entirely unconscious, or subconscious. Evolution, progress, expansion of consciousness, all such ideas are meaningless to these people, who look for truth to be revealed suddenly, miraculously, in some complete and final form; after which there remains an infinity of bliss. Such minds must dogmatize, until the light breaks in and shows the distant heights.
The student of Theosophy does not dogmatize; but a Theosophic teacher may speak positively, and may formulate very definite teachings for the use of disciples who have not yet learned to stand on their own feet. The teachings of Theosophy in themselves preclude the formulation of dogmas as finalities; for, if the spirit of man is an emanation from the Supreme Spirit of man's universe, then it must follow that the personal mind of man is liable to receive light, through the individual soul, from the supreme source of all. It follows that such illumination must adapt itself to the mentality through which it passes, and must be modified in its final expression by the character of the man's personality. That is to say, each man will have to interpret the internal revelation according to his personal state of development.
So long as he is content to have his thinking done for him he must remain outside the pale of true humanity, one of the mass of beings with human forms and with human possibilities, but with the human quality still latent. Such are the unthinking masses, who may be wealthy and able to make a show of superficial knowledge, but who are not individualized by the awakening of the soul within.
Many people mistake selfishness for individuality. Selfishness is the survival of an animal instinct intensified by contact with a human mind in a human body. Individuality is a recognition by the mind of the superior dominating consciousness of the soul and of the essential unity of the individual soul with the Supreme.
Selfishness is not eliminated by intellectual development; far from it. There are too many evidences of the contrary. Nor is individuality born of 'head-learning': rather is it the fruit of soul-wisdom, which may exist where there is little or no intellectuality of the usual kind. For wisdom is a quality of the soul, and it may be found in people who are relatively ignorant as far as ordinary education is concerned. So Theosophy may appeal in very different ways to different minds, and may be studied and pursued by many different methods. All of which goes to make it hard to answer the simple question, 'What is Theosophy?'
When Madame Blavatsky first tried to call attention to the existence of the ancient philosophy known as the Secret Doctrine, she gave credit for all that she wrote on the subject to her Teachers, who were at that time often alluded to as "the Brothers"; for they seemed to her like the elder brothers of humanity. She spoke of them with reverence and affection, as men who had traveled far on the path of wisdom and true knowledge, and whose lives were devoted to the helping of humanity. She said she was their messenger, and that her task was to awaken the so-called civilized world to the existence of Theosophy, or that sacred science, the Wisdom-Religion, which she also called the "Secret Doctrine," and from which all sciences and all religions have come down.
She was at once met with demands for evidence of the existence of these Teachers, and for proofs of their superior wisdom, and she endeavored to meet these demands in various ways.
The result of her efforts was to attract to herself numbers of followers, who at once recognised the truth of her mission and of her teachings. Also there flocked around her a swarm of intellectual adventurers, who were eager for the acquirement of strange knowledge, and for the acquisition of occult powers. Besides these followers she attracted a host of enemies, who made it their business to defeat her object, and to discredit her in the eyes of the public, while vigorously denying the existence of her Teachers and the reality of their knowledge.
Generous and trusting as she was, her indignation was deeply stirred by the insults to those Teachers, for whom she had so true a veneration and such deep gratitude. She thought to convince the world of their reality by evidences that were rejected as trickery, and by assertions that were declared falsehoods. But a few devoted followers remained unshaken in their devotion to the Teachers, whose disciple she claimed to be.
The efforts of her enemies to destroy the new revelation of the ancient truths pursued her to the end of her life, but in no way checked her efforts to fulfil her mission. She worked unceasingly, producing monumental literary works: which stand today as mountains of treasure, from which all may dig wealth of science and philosophy as well as of history and psychology.
As this mass of Theosophic literature increased, the study of the doctrines of Theosophy became possible to all, through efforts of her followers and disciples to spread the teachings and to simplify the abstruse treatises in which those teachings were conveyed.
As some of the Teachers of Madame Blavatsky were of Eastern race, and as their teachings came from the source from which sprang the oldest language known to us, so at first many Sanskrit words and oriental terms were used, for which English equivalents were not available. A new vocabulary was needed, and it has been gradually evolved: so that at present it is possible to present some aspects of Theosophy in plain language — that is to say, in language that may be easily understood if not altogether familiar. And students of Theosophy are constantly endeavoring to make the teachings simpler in their expression. But all such efforts are necessarily liable to create difficulties as well as to remove them.
Try to explain any simple thing to a mixed audience, and then get some of them to say just what they have understood of it, and you will stand aghast at the result of your efforts. All teachers may know this; though I think many are so self-satisfied that they refuse to see the fact that human minds are infinitely diverse and infinitely varied: so that the clearest explanation will result in some confusion and in some misunderstanding.
Therefore the effort of a Theosophic Teacher will vary continually in the manner of presenting the teaching. And the Teacher may possibly appear to be giving no instruction at all, when actively engaged in making for the students an atmosphere in which the soul of the inquirer may expand under the influence of the divine light that shines from the spirit within.
Inquirers into Theosophy are those who no longer are content to follow a beaten track that seems to lead back to the place from which it started. They have begun to think for themselves: and they must go on as they have started. They must study Theosophy for themselves: and they must find the path in themselves. Following the inward path they will find that they are nearing the central heart of all humanity, and so are coming closer to their fellows by sympathy with the inner self of all. From this inward inspiration will spring the only real love of humanity that will stand the test of actual experience. This awakening of the true heart is the beginning of true wisdom, which is Theosophy.
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