Article in The Theosophist of October 1996
THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY AND THE WISDOM RELIGION
by Geoffrey A. Farthing
During the period from the time the Theosophical Society was inaugurated in New York in 1875 until H.P.B's death in 1891 much teaching was given out in H.P.B's voluminous writings.
In the first instance emphasis was given to spiritualistic phenomena, notably that taking place at the Eddy homestead in Chittenden, Vermont, where H.P.B. met Col. Olcott. To start with H.P.B. did not explain the phenomena in terms of Esoteric Science.
At this time the objects of the Society were being formulated, eventually becoming the three with which all members are familiar. It is noteworthy that none of the objects mentions Theosophy as such but the third object grew out of some preliminary attempts to include the investigation of psychic phenomena specifically.
Later, the general subject of Occult or Esoteric Science, some of
which had been generally introduced in Isis Unveiled, came
to be more specifically formulated in parts of what are now H.P.B's
Collected Writings. This formulation became more definite in
The Secret Doctrine, and was largely epitomized in H.P.B's
Papers to her Inner Group. Later it was set out, more clearly but
in broad terms, in The Key to Theosophy wherein the principles
of man were definitely stated. In connection with the classification
of the principles then given there is an important note in an article
for La Revue théosophique (April 21, 1889) by H.P.B.
'The terminology established some fifteen years ago ... on the Theosophical Society is the correct one, because in every case these terms are a faithful translation of their Sanskrit equivalent, almost as old as the human race. This terminology could not be modified at present, without running the risk of introducing into the theosophical teachings a chaos which would be deplorable and dangerous to their clarity.'
This was written in the same year as The Key to Theosophy was published. It can be taken as a special reference to the terminology then carefully defined in The Key.
Unfortunately, as every student of theosophical literature will know, that terminology was in fact considerably altered and, for the more serious student, serious difficulties amounting to chaos have arisen.
It is also of interest to the theosophical student that in The Key [to Theosophy] it is specifically stated (page 57 of the Original Edition) that:
'Theosophy is the shoreless ocean of universal truth, love, and wisdom, reflecting its radiance on the earth, while the Theosophical Society is only a visible bubble on that reflection. Theosophy is divine nature, visible and invisible, and its Society human nature trying to ascend to its divine parent. Theosophy, finally, is the fixed eternal sun, and its Society the evanescent comet trying to settle in an orbit to become a planet, ever revolving within the attraction of the sun of truth. It was formed to assist in showing to men that such a thing as Theosophy exists, and to help them to ascend towards it by studying and assimilating its eternal verities.'
This is an interesting statement in the light of the fact that Theosophy is not mentioned in the objects. Clearly it was then intended that the Theosophical Society should be the means of promoting a knowledge of the Theosophy then being propounded by the Masters and H.P.B. In this context the words, 'its eternal verities' should be particularly noted. It is of great importance, firstly because of the stress laid on freedom of thought within the Society and secondly because of the different versions of Theosophy put out as such after H.P.B's death, when the idea grew up in the Society that Theosophy itself is not a specific teaching.
However, in a letter which has come to be known as the Maha Chohan's letter of 1881, there was this explanation by the Master K.H. to Sinnett: '[It is] an abridged version of the view of the Chohan on the T.S. from his own words as given last night. My own letter, the answer to your last, will shortly follow. K.H.' The views of the Maha Chohan then begin:
'The doctrine we promulgate being the only true one, must, supported by such evidence as we are preparing to give, become ultimately triumphant as every other truth....'
Among many other very significant passages in the letter is the following,
'Buddhism, stripped of its superstitions, is eternal truth, and he who strives for the latter is striving for theo-sophia, Divine Wisdom, which is a synonym for truth.'
Later in the same letter,
'For our doctrines to practically react on the so-called moral code, or the ideas of truthfulness, purity, self-denial, charity, etc., we have to preach and popularize a knowledge of Theosophy.'
And then again,
'It's time that Theosophy should enter the arena. The sons of Theosophists are more likely to become in their turn Theosophists than anything else. No messenger of truth, no prophet, has ever achieved during his lifetime a complete triumph, not even Buddha. The Theosophical Society was chosen as the cornerstone, the foundation of the future religions of humanity....'
From the foregoing it is apparent not only that Theosophy is a specific teaching but also that it was intended by the Masters that the Theosophical Society should be the means of popularizing it. Having in mind the heading of this article, 'The Wisdom Religion', it is clear that in the Masters' view there was a close association of Theosophy with Buddhism stripped of its superstitions, and that it represented the purest form of religion.
The Masters acknowledged Buddha as the Head of the Esoteric Hierarchy, saying about him that he was the greatest man that ever lived. They said that he reformed and codified the esoteric teachings. Perhaps it was because of this that one of them made a contribution towards the building of the Buddhist Temple at Adyar. Unfortunately this has commonly become regarded as a symbol of sectarian Buddhism no different from any other sectarian religion.
All the foregoing raises a number of questions: What is the doctrine promulgated by the Masters? What is the religion of which the Theosophical Society was intended to become the cornerstone? What are the eternal verities of Theosophy referred to by H.P.B. to which man ought to try to ascend?
Some answers to these questions are to be found in A.P. Sinnett's book (1884) Esoteric Buddhism based largely on teachings he at that time was receiving from the two Masters K.H. and M. Other indications of what is meant by 'The Wisdom Religion' are in the classical literature. It has many synonyms, viz. the Ancient Wisdom, the Secret Doctrine, Esoteric Science or Philosophy, and Occultism or Theosophy. It is, however, also referred to as the Source, the origin, in their prime form, of all religions.
In The Key to Theosophy there is the following question and answer:
'Enq: How have the latter tenets (esoteric teachings) reached our day, since you hold that what is properly called the WISDOM-RELIGION was esoteric?
Theo: The WISDOM-RELIGION was ever one, and being the last word of possible human knowledge, was carefully preserved. It preceded by long ages the Alexandrian Theosophists, reached the modern, and will survive every other religion and philosophy.'
Earlier in The Key [to theosophy] H.P.B. refers to Ammonius Saccas who started the Eclectic Theosophical system. She says:
'The chief aim of the founders of ... that school was one of the three objects of its modern successor, the Theosophical Society, namely, to reconcile all religions, sects, and nations under a common system of ethics, based on eternal verities.'
Further, in the Preface to The Secret Doctrine, H.P.B. has this to say:
'But it is perhaps desirable to state unequivocally that the teachings, however fragmentary and incomplete, contained in these volumes, belong neither to the Hindu, the Zoroastrian, the Chaldean nor the Egyptian religion, neither to Buddhism, Islam, Judaism nor Christianity exclusively. The Secret Doctrine is the essence of all these. Sprung from it in their origins, the various religious schemes are now made to merge back into their original element, out of which every mystery and dogma has grown, developed, and become materialised.'
It should be noted that this demonstrating of a common origin of all religions and a reinstatement of it, is quite different from a brotherly tolerance of others' religions as evidenced by the various temples etc. at Adyar, or even the utterance of the prayers of religions at T.S. functions. The aim was to introduce a single transcendent system, regardless of any local and social differences of presentation that might be necessary. Theosophy was to be the unifying factor in not only religion but all human affairs.
Answers to the questions mentioned above cannot be significantly apprehended by the normal processes of the transmission of 'information' by word of mouth, writing or any other such 'symbolic' approach. That they are obviously transmissible, however, is evidenced by the enormous literature on the subject that is now available, particularly the great outpourings of H.P. Blavatsky, and to a degree those in the Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett. There is more than enough 'information' in these works to satisfy the hungriest philosopher but they convey their essential message by internal assimilation, not so much by memorizing.
The teachings exhibit two aspects: one is, in very general terms, that they contain within themselves knowledge of the nature and processes of Cosmos (Universe) described in considerable detail. From these we can get a vision in our mind's eye of the workings of Nature, at least to the extent that we can comprehend them. The second aspect concerns the matter of 'apprehension'. The teachings tell us that, in each department of his total Being, man reflects every aspect of Nature (Cosmos). In discovering his own nature, i.e. bringing it to the light of his own consciousness, he is thereby discovering the inner secrets of Nature herself. This involves the development of faculty, but all faculty in man and in Nature stems from the same source. They are self-existent in everything. The long, long, processes of evolution are making available the means, the complex living forms, for these faculties to express themselves. This process is taking place in all living things in all the kingdoms of Nature, with of course its apex in man. Man, however, can consciously set about the quickening of the necessary faculties already latent in him.
The development of faculty, and in particular of the faculties for the apprehension and understanding of the workings of that arena of life wherein each of us finds him or herself, is the aim of our evolutionary progress and we can hasten or hinder it according the efforts we are prepared to make in the circumstances of our lives.
It is not within the scope of this article to enlarge upon the 'form' side of the eternal verities. They are set out clearly enough for him who cares to look and devote the necessary time and effort to their discovery, in The Secret Doctrine and elsewhere. The other side, the actual development of our faculty, might be regarded as the 'spirit' side of our long quest for knowledge and understanding.
Both these aspects comprise the Wisdom Religion, the title of this article. Religion is defined in many places as a binding us back to something, vaguely this is often referred to as God, but God is not very clearly defined. In Theosophy, however, that to which we are bound back is specifically defined and it is therein that the notions of the 'eternal verities' - Truth etc. - reside.
The perception of these verities, in any concrete terms, is difficult, and abstractions mean little. A powerful aid, however, to their being something other than merely concepts of the mind, which, for example, we create when we formulate and accept a 'belief', is the idea of the fact of the existence of the universe, which constitutes our environment when perceived on the smallest or the largest scale. For most of us this represents real reality. It is there, in immediate terms, that are the familiar things, plants and animals, sunshine and rain. These are not matters of 'opinion' no matter what we may think of them, even if the weather should be particularly unpleasant! In viewing Nature our environment can extend from what is immediate to the most remote. It can extend throughout the sky with its immeasurable depths to the stars at their immense distances and uncountable numbers. These are physical verities: amongst them are our physical selves. No belief is required to accept them nor their inseverable relation to what we regard as Nature: they are facts.
There are other verities: our feelings and our thoughts, not so much by way of what we feel, or what we think about, or even the concepts with which we furnish our world, but the actual fact of feeling, the fact of thought. These are unquestionable, and not matters of opinion or belief. They for us are verities. There are other facts that on occasion we may experience: joys to the point of ecstasy, the blackest possible despair and so on. True it is that these may be merely subjective arising from a variety of causes, but the fact is that we have such experiences.
The foregoing indicates two things: one, that we are very intimately connected to Nature and are in fact ourselves natural beings in every department of our so-called natures, and two, that, however illusory or mayavic Nature may be in absolute terms, it constitutes a reality for us. Nature is that to which we are bound back inseverably because we are part of it. The Wisdom Religion can thereby be regarded as something of like nature to that intimate unbreakable connection, and the Wisdom part of the religion is our growing appreciation or cognition, the consciousness of the fundamental nature of ourselves as mirrors of the whole grand process.
The theosophical teaching is just that. It is not a belief system; it is not dogmatic; it requires no special places or persons to promote a knowledge of it; it is all there within each of us as an absolute inalienable fact of existence. In the sense that we know we are alive, it is our very life.
To practise this religion means that first of all we must know about it. This is one purpose of the Theosophical Society. Secondly, as it becomes a realization, we have to devote ourselves, as far as circumstances will allow, to its proper pursuit, practising a constant awareness.
The Wisdom Religion is sometimes referred to as the Ancient Wisdom. If it is defined as above it will be seen that it is ageless as well; that it is as pertinent today as it ever was, and will be so for all ages to come.
In November 1888 in her magazine Lucifer H.P.B. wrote an article entitled 'Is Theosophy a Religion?' (C.W.X, 159 et seq.) In it appears a paragraph,
'The just published Secret Doctrine will show what were the ideas of all antiquity with regard to the primeval instructors of primitive man and his three earlier races. The genesis of that WISDOM-RELIGION, in which all theosophists believe, dates from that period. So-called "Occultism" or rather Esoteric Science has to be traced in its origin to those Beings who, led by Karma, have incarnated in our humanity, and thus struck the keynote of that secret Science which countless generations of subsequent adepts have expanded since then in every age, while they checked its doctrines by personal observation and experience. The bulk of this knowledge - which no man is able to possess in its fullness - constitutes that which we now call Theosophy or "divine knowledge"...' (Collected Writings of H.P.Blavatsky, Volume .X, page 166)
This is telling us that humanity has never been without either experienced teachers or the teaching. Up till the late nineteenth century however, much of the teaching was not made public.
Until the writing of The Secret Doctrine and The Key to Theosophy the formulation of Theosophy as a definite teaching with specific aspects had been a gradual process. In the early days only some general remarks about it and in particular spiritualistic phenomena had been made by H.P.B. At that time therefore there was justification for Theosophy not having been mentioned in the Society's objects. Later, however, particularly with the writing of The Key, which contained the statement already quoted above that the Theosophical Society "was formed to assist in showing to men that such a thing as Theosophy exists, and to help them to ascend towards it by studying and assimilating its eternal verities", the precise function of the Society had not been so clearly enunciated. That declaration could well form a fourth object of the Society, in addition to the well known three. That statement, together with that in the Maha Chohan's letter to the effect that it was intended that the Society should become the cornerstone of the future religions of mankind, very clearly indicates the Masters' intention in founding the Society.
It was also clearly the Masters' intention that, before H.P.B. died, she should complete the writing of The Secret Doctrine. This intention is emphasized by the fact that, during the writing of that great work, even though H.P.B. was at times desperately ill, the Masters intervened to save her life, thus ensuring that an adequate statement of Theosophy was left to the world on her death.
The message contained in that work is of such a nature that it was extremely unlikely in the normal course of his progress, unregenerate man could ever have discovered it. Reference was made above to teachers always being available and of course this must have been true but it appears from history that they were available only to the very select few. With the advent of H.P.B's writings the Ancient Wisdom, the Wisdom Religion or the Secret Doctrine, was made generally available for any enquirer with enough determination and perseverance to seek it out. Her books were published: not privately circulated as had more often been the case previously with similar works.
An important fact about the writings of H.P.B. not fully appreciated by theosophical students, or others interested in Esotericism in its broadest sense, is that H.P.B. was at great pains to ensure that what she gave out was not a gospel according to anyone; she collected and collated information from all reliable sources, from the remotest antiquity up to relatively recent times. Her sources included the great sages of history, the philosophers, the founders of religions and embraced much of what had been made public before in the Esotericism of Astrology, the Kabala, Alchemy, etc. She was able, by reason of her training, to discover the common thread of instruction from amongst the numerous and diverse sources which she contacted, and to explain much of what up till then had been expressed only in symbols, glyphs, parables, etc. She neither invented nor added anything significant of her own. In the Introduction to her great work she quotes some words of Montaigne as follows,
'Gentlemen, I have here made only a nosegay of cold flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them.'
and then she adds,
'Pull the 'string' to pieces and cut it up in shreds if you will. As for the nosegay of FACTS - you will never be able to make away with these. You can only ignore them, and no more.'
This is in distinct contrast to the many 'teachers' who came after her and established their own 'systems'. Whatever authority these later writers claimed for their works, their claims were uncorroborated. Another factor of importance was that H.P.B. herself was able to demonstrate considerable spiritual powers far transcending those of later writers. Where they did possess any, they were largely psychic, or what stemmed from psychism. Some later writers claimed as an 'authority' a Master of the Wisdom. Sometimes though they were inspired by direct revelation. H.P.B. points out, however, that the great historical Teachers brought forth no revelation peculiar to themselves. They were merely, as she was, 'transmitters'.
It is often said that truth can only be expressed in paradox and a paradox can be a guide to the seeker after truth, or at least the truth which relates to manifest existence by way of the nature and processes of Cosmos (the Universe) itself. Essentially these are always the same. The paradox of course is that these processes in themselves involve continuous change. This is seen especially in the process of evolution or ever-becoming.
To attempt to summarize the content of this somewhat lengthy article is difficult because of the unbounded or open-ended nature of the subject. We have merely talked round the subject of the Wisdom Religion. We have identified it with Theosophy, and have talked first of all about the founding of the Theosophical Society with its three objects (which do not mention Theosophy). We have made the point that Theosophy is a teaching that was formulated gradually in the years following the foundation of the Society in H.P.B's voluminous writings until we had the clearest single exposition of it in The Secret Doctrine, soon followed by The Key to Theosophy. In this work it is categorically stated that the object of the Society is to let is be known that such a thing as Theosophy exists. We have been at pains to demonstrate that Theosophy is a specific teaching, a 'thing' in its own right. We have also tried to demonstrate that this teaching has existed from time immemorial and been promulgated, at least in part, by a veritable army of teachers throughout the ages. More often than not they used symbol, parable and allegory, whereas H.P.B. wrote as far as she could in plain language, even though the meaning of it remains for many of us obscure unless we are prepared to make the very considerable effort at self-enlightenment that the study entails.
It is the growth of faculty in us as we persist that is the prime characteristic of what we seek, the Wisdom Religion.
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