[Page 1] FROM the very earliest times of which we have record, it would seem that Priesthoods, in one form or another have existed, and in fact in the far away twilight of history, it is the Priesthoods which do, above all other of their surroundings, stand out, and as it were, take definite shape and form, and so on, step by step, unto the present time. Turn where we will we find a Priesthood connected with the worship of every religion of which we can find record; a Priesthood, sometimes, as in Ancient Egypt, headed by initiated kings, the guardians of the most sacred wisdom, a Priesthood regarded by the people with the utmost veneration, actually and truly the rulers of the State, sometimes, as in the Mohamedan countries of the present day, where the Priesthood merely consists of "inmauns" leaders of public devotion, and "ulemas" religious teachers, without the slightest semblance of authority in the state, and by no means regarded by the people as in any degree sacred by reason of their office. Throughout the history of the world, we look in vain for a popular religion lacking a Priesthood.
Perhaps before proceeding further to discuss this matter of Priesthoods it will be well to see that we attach some definite meaning to the words Priest and Priesthood, as in our ordinary loose manner of using words in every day speech, we are apt to have a somewhat confused idea in our minds as to what we actually do mean by the words we make use of. The word "Priest" is derived from a Greek word which signifies merely an elder or expounder; but with this word Priest we are apt to, and in fact usually do, imply the added meaning of another Greek word (in its Latin equivalent “sacerdos"), which signifies the minister of sacred things, the performers of ritual and acts of sacrifice for and on behalf of the people. Now, in this distinction between the two ideas I think we have a clue which will help us to understand what should, and what should not, be a Priesthood. What was the Priesthood sanctioned by the Great Reformers of the Religions of the World — which word, I think, better than founders — expresses their actual aim. Taking Gautama Buddha and Jesus as the representatives of these reformers, what do we find; we find in the first place that they came in times when the religious life of those amongst whom they [Page 2] were born had become cold and crystallized, when the word Religion had come to mean dogma, ritual, and materialism; in a word, when Priestcraft reigned supreme: Priestcraft in the sense of sacerdotalism, a Priestcraft drugged with the opium fumes of idolatry, a Priestcraft relying on the letter, and caring nothing at all for the spirit. And what was the work of these Reformers ? Surely, above all else, it was the destruction of this idolatry, the uprooting of this materialistic poison plant, the casting down of this sacerdotalism of the Priesthood — the idea embodied in which is, that one man has a right to stand between the Deity and the individual spirit, indwelling in each man, to perform sacrificial and other acts, which that other man is incapable of performing for himself.
In place of all this sacerdotalism and idolatry these great world
Reformers taught that there is one Supreme God, that each man must be a "Sacerdos" to himself, must
in fact perform his own sacrifices, and that however poor, outcast, or ignorant, as the world counts ignorance,
he has the power, by his own exertions, to become one with that Supreme Being in his nature, to be in harmony
with God, or, in other words, "to
enter the Kingdom of Heaven". That the strength to accomplish this lies within and not without the man,
and that each individual stands in direct relation to the Supreme, and hence there remains no longer any place,
either in the world or out of it, for the "Sacerdos" or "go-between". Besides this great
central truth, the "corner stone" of the whole fabric, these teachers revealed to a chosen few, chosen
we may surmise because the teacher saw in their minds a possibility of response to his, and a power to assimilate
some portion at least, of the higher and more metaphysical truths, to which the ears of the people would be deaf
and their minds dull. Why were these disciples selected and instructed by the teachers ? Surely it was, that
they in their turn might go forth, as, indeed, it is recorded that both Gautama Buddha and Jesus distinctly commanded
them to do, and when they found others who could also understand to instruct them, and so pass on from one to
another some of the esoteric side of the teachings, and thus ensure that the light of the Divine illumination
should at all times be accessible to the followers of the Teacher. This was all the command laid upon them, to
teach and exhort, nothing more. No word at all do we find of ritual, no mention of Sacerdotalism under any shape
or form, not even any suggestion for the followers to worship and pay Divine or other honours to the Reformers
themselves. They were simply to endeavour to convince others of that which they held to be Truth. They were in
fact ordained as "presbyters", and thus one element of a Priesthood, in what I conceive to be, its
true signification was founded. [Page 3]
Such a presbytery as this seems to be eminently right and fit, in fact, if the teachings were to be preserved at all either exoterically or esoterically, absolutely necessary in earlier days, and most serviceable even in these later ones.
"The Priest, too, as I understand it, is a kind of a Prophet; in him, too, there is required to be a light of inspiration, as we must name it. He presides over the worship of the people, — is the Uniter of them with the Unseen Holy; he is the Spiritual Captain of the people, as the Prophet is their Spiritual King with many Captains; he guides them heavenward, by wise guidance" through this earth and its work. The ideal of him is, that he too be what we call a voice from the Unseen Heaven; interpreting, even as the "Prophet did, and in a more familiar manner unfolding the same to men — the Unseen Heaven — the open secret of the Universe — which so few have an eye for. He is the Prophet shorn of his more awful splendour; burning with a mild equable radiance, as the enlightener of daily life. This, I say, is the ideal of a Priest. So in old times, so in these, and in all times. One knows very well that, in reducing ideals to practice, great latitude of tolerance is needful: very great. But a Priest who is not this at all, who does not any longer aim or try to be this, is a character — of whom we would rather not speak in this place".In this passage which I have quoted, you will observe that in his definition of what a Priest should be, Carlyle makes allusion to a Prophet as being as it were another Priest, only of higher spiritual rank — so to speak — one standing a step nearer to the source of all illumination. It is precisely for the same reason that I have, in referring to this order of Presbyters, instituted by the Great Teachers, called them collectively, one element of the Priesthood. For the Priesthood as a whole, though it includes the Presbytery, is not limited to this class alone.
The analogy of the oft recurred to "Sevenfold Constitution of Man" will, I think, help us to understand the nature of the various elements comprised in the whole body of the Priesthood. Taking the four lower principles, the "lower quarternary", as representing ordinary humanity, meaning by "ordinary" those not in any way connected with any of the several orders of the Priesthood to which I am about to refer; to this "ordinary" humanity I consider that the Priesthood is related, as are the three Higher Principles to the lower quarternary in man's sevenfold constitution. Let us work it out, and see how this analogy can be made good, To begin at the highest principle: To Atma, I think we [Page 4] may not irreverently liken the Divine Initiates, in the highest sense of the term; the Planetary Spirits, those mysterious and wonderful Beings who preside over the whole evolution of this world of ours, who are the source from whence all Divine Wisdom flows towards us; of whose nature and offices, so far transcending all that our minds can form any conception of, we can know next to nothing, and about which it is idle for us to speculate. These are the true High Priests.
Next in order come that glorious brotherhood of Initiates, who have from all times tended and guarded the sacred flame of divine wisdom, thus preventing its entire extinction even to these latest days — a glorious Brotherhood indeed ! Great religious Reformers, Prophets, Seers, all are included in this goodly confraternity. This great division of the Priesthood may be compared to the Buddhic principle in Man, for they indeed act as the "bridge'' uniting us to the "Unseen".
Finally we come to the Manasic Principle with its twofold aspect. As to the Higher Manas, to it I would liken all the order of the Presbyters, of whom I have already made mention, who, without being of necessity Initiates, are nevertheless devoting their lives to the study of the "Wisdom of God" and who have, so to speak, at least entered the path. These come into closer contact with humanity at large, and act as expounders and moral and ethical teachers. Lastly, as to the Lower Manasic Principle: related to it is all the higher intellectual and scientific side of mankind. The Presbytery and the intellectual leaders ever striving with the Lower Quarternary, and thereby ever little by little raising them upward and onward.
Taking then this definition of the whole body of the Priesthood, the question arises, "How do we find this ideal of a Priesthood actually working at the present time ? With regard to the Highest Element of the Priesthood, the Atmic element, and the next in order, which I have likened to the Buddhic element, we do not expect to find the representatives of these two great divisions of the Priesthood clothed in human form, working in our midst today. Of some of the highest of these, it may be said that, like glorious comets, they are revealed to mortal eyes, only at long intervals; like comets they are made visible to mankind, coming out from the darkness and again being received into its mysterious depths, but unlike comets, which leave behind them no sign in the heavens showing the path traversed by them, these, greatest of mankind leave behind for those that have eyes to see, that path shining with a clear and steady radiance, ever serving as a beacon light to guide humanity towards the goal of truth and wisdom. Amongst their number are those Initiates who "serve within [Page 5] the Temple veil". We at least, who are members of the Theosophical Society, have reason to know that these Great Souls still work for and help the race, still preserve the sacred wisdom for the benefit of mankind, and poor humanity may still turn to them, and never turn in vain, for help and guidance in treading the upward path. They are ever ready to assist others to reach the heights where they now stand, — these elder brothers of our race. Creeds rise and fall, dogma and ritual have their day, but all this strife and stress, which to us, situated as we are in the midst of it, seems so vital and at times all important, seen from their lofty vantage ground is reduced to its real and diminutive proportions, leaving their calm souls absolutely unruffled by its petty storms and their foothold unshaken and unmoved. It is around the third and lowest great division of the Priesthood that these storms arise; that division or order of the Priesthood which I have likened to the Manasic element in man's constitution. It is this order of the Priesthood, which, in looking round about us in this 19th century, we may legitimately expect to find working steadfastly and patiently among us; ever carrying abroad amongst the masses of mankind, in this the darkest hour of their trial, lamps, lighted by them at the sacred flame burning within the veil of the temple, to serve as beacons for their guidance, endeavouring from their lamps to kindle in each man some flame, however flickering — above all leading lives of perfect self-denial and self-sacrifice; and by their unselfishness and gentleness of life helping to wean mankind from its animal and brutal instincts, scattering broadcast the seed of truth so that all at least may hear.
This then is the Presbytery and this their office, and linked with this Presbytery we should hope to find the leaders of scientific and intellectual thought working together for the betterment of the general condition of the race. Both drawing their inspiration from the same source, and both in their several lines pressing forward towards the same goal; standing related to humanity at large, as Manas in its two-fold aspect is to the four lower principles in man's constitution. Such a Priesthood, I say we may legitimately expect to find, but alas, it is far otherwise. What do we find here in the West ? In the first place we find the two great sub-divisions of the third order of the Priesthood, the religious and philosophical branch and the scientific and intellectual branch at deadly feud and enmity, and again each of these branches severally split up into numberless groups all ready to fly at each other's throats, the mass of humanity seeing such a condition of affairs, following the example of their leaders. We find the clergy at large in a great measure given up to questions of dogma and ritual as to things of the utmost and most vital importance. This is true not only of the clergy of the West, it is also to the [Page 6] same extent true of the Priesthoods of the East. The real living fundamental truths of their religions, even in their most exoteric sense seem well nigh lost, stifled, or only just gasping for breath, asphyxia by the sulphurous clouds of dogma. We find a so-called Priesthood striving for worldly power and authority, and assuming titles of worldly pomp. The higher in rank the Priest the more richly endowed with wealth, exacting obedience, nay even sometimes cursing those who differ, from them, and in days not long past, disposing of their opponents by the argument of the "faggot and the stake". One and all bribing humanity at large by rewards promised, and punishment threatened, accentuating thereby the innate selfishness of men, which, in all conscience little needs to be so carefully fostered, selfishness being, alas, a weed which thrives under even the most unpropitious conditions of soil and climate. All this the exact opposite of what the Teacher, whose followers they profess to be and by whose name they call themselves, ordained. As a part of the true Priesthood they exist no longer, that division of the Priesthood, as regards them, is dead and buried, nothing but dry bones remain. Though the so-called Priesthood no longer as a body is connected with the true Priesthood, yet many of the individuals who are comprised within its ranks still do much true work on the lower plane for poor humanity — let us rejoice thereat — oftimes with much self sacrifice and great unselfishness of purpose. I suppose we have all of us known some such; but wisdom is lacking, and so the work is at best not fully productive.
Contrasting the representatives of this Third Division of the Priesthood in India and in England, what do we find ?
In India we find the Priesthood, taken as a whole, simply a mere shell of its former self, its mind occupied with innumerable and interminable rituals, without any real influence with the people except by means of superstition, unable to help them forward a hand's breadth on the road towards the goal of Truth. Taking the letter for the spirit, the outer for the inner, the spirit has indeed left them, and of the former true body of the Priesthood, nothing but the Kama Rupa remains. And now, turning to so-called Christian lands, what do we see there ? We see a Priesthood, not altogether of the same nature as the former, endowed with greater physical vitality perhaps, but bearing no greater resemblance to its original self, than is the case amongst the Hindoos and Brahmins.
In the East the Priesthood has died of starvation, in the West it has died also, but from another cause, namely, over-feeding. Of starvation in the East, brought about by indolence and ignorance; of gluttony in the West, from gorging itself on the "good things” of the world. In this is well shown the difference between the races, each has lost the true [Page 7] light from the same radical evil, selfishness, which has sapped life-blood of each Priesthood; the disease has been common to both, but the symptoms have varied according to the different temperaments of the races.
That is why in the East today we find the Priesthood, for the most part poor, simple of life, and above all, indolent; and in the West we find them, comparatively speaking, rich, arrogant, and of great physical vitality.
With regard to this question of decay in Priesthoods as connected with any form of religion, of' which we have record, the fact that a decay seems to set in almost from the birth of any particular Priesthood is very marked, a gradual falling away from the original type. Type has succeeded type, and decay and dissolution have set their seal on all. What has been in the past, we must needs argue will, by analogy, be true of types to come, and were we unable to trace some general law working steadily and undeviatingly towards some final higher state of evolution, we might well be excused if, folding our hands, we resigned ourselves to apathy and despair, unable to see the possibility of any appreciable and permanent advance being made by the race at large through the agency of any species of Priesthood. In endeavouring to pierce the gloom which shrouds the future from our anxious gaze, all we should discern would be an endless succession of types, being born, living for a space, decaying and dying, leading humanity no-whither. Bach in turn leaving the race as helpless and hopeless as it found it.
But, thanks to the teachings of the Esoteric philosophy, we have just sufficient outline given to us as will serve to give us heart and forbid us to despair. By this philosophy we are taught that we of the fifth sub-race of the fifth root-race of mankind on this planet, have as humanity already passed the very lowest point in the arc of the whole life-cycle, and that humanity has, even now, began to start forward once again on its upward path, and so, while we must still realise that all permanent growth and evolution will of necessity be slow and gradual, yet when we feel assured that the course to be traversed, in its general tendency, lies upward, and not downward, we can look forward to future types and systems with the full hope that, as type succeeds type, the decay will be more gradual, the dissolution less complete.
With regard to this question of decay in the Priesthoods, it will, I think, be instructive to quote a passage from Samuel Johnson's " Oriental Religions" in which he refers to the manner in which he conceives the Brahminical or Priestly Caste in India arose. He, says: —
"The national 'seer' is the first recognised ruler. The grateful [Page 8] people will live to honour and die to appease him. They will stand afar "off while he talks with gods and spirits for their sakes. He is magician,astrologer, physician, poet, moral leader. As yet there is no Priestcraft here. As social relations are developed, this class becomes not only psalmists and singers, but teachers and counsellors of the king; they direct his policy, simply because they are his wisest men. The 'seer' teaches his wisdom to his children, who follow in his honoured paths. They come to have esoteric mysteries; but it is simply because their religious disciplines as well as natural susceptibilities have put them , in possession of physical and psychological knowledge which the multitude can receive only in parable.
By-and-bye the 'Seers' become an organization. Their hereditary disciplines draw them into closer combination for such purposes as grow naturally out of their public functions; and we have Levites, Magi, Brahmans. The Hindu purohitas, or seers, thus transformed, are bound into charanas and parishads, schools and associations for definite objects , such as the guardianship of formulas and rites, or the study of the Vedic Hymns. Gradually the text becomes more precious than the soul which created it, and at last its guardian is holier even than itself. The freedom and ardor of the Veda hymns are supplanted by formulas of doctrine, the oracles of Nature, by ritual law. A corporate authority grows up by the force of intellectual supremacy, and in the name of religion, which favourable circumstances develop into the Brahman Caste......
Such substantially is the history of Priesthood in all times. It begins in the natural gravitation of power to the wisest and friendliest of men . But where the Prophet stood in the morning of a religion, by-and-bye stands the Priest, its functionary inheriting his honours, but not his spirit, . . . In the Eastern race the degeneration was not averted by science and political liberty. But, on the other hand, it escaped that sort of ecclesiastical Jesuitism which follows the deliberate refusal to recognise what these Teachers bring".
In some religions, no doubt, the true type of Priesthood was preserved longer than in others, as, for instance, in the case of Egypt where the true Priesthood would seem to have survived unusually long as regards the esoteric and philosophical side of that great religion of antiquity; nevertheless in the later days of that religion, we find the priestly caste arrogating to themselves much worldly distinction and, as a class, claiming to stand on quite another level to the laity; acting as intercessors between the people and the Gods, encouraging the anthropomorphic ideas of the laity, and whatever they themselves may have known of the true underlying meaning of their pantheism and ritual, [Page 9] this meaning they withheld from the people, and hence the nation at large was, in a great measure, given over to idolatry. Between the Priesthood and the people was a distinct line of demarcation, hence the fossilising of that religion and its subsequent extinction.
In what I have said, I have, of course, merely been able to, as it were, touch the outside fringe of the vast subject which forms the title of my Paper. The whole subject can be viewed and treated in many ways, I have but hinted at one aspect of it. The chief reason I had in view in treating the subject from this particular side, is that by considering Priesthoods generally, I might possibly be able to suggest some useful and practical thoughts as connected with our position as members of the Theosophical Society. For we Members of the Society, or at any rate such among our number as are persuaded of the actual existence of that higher order of the Initiated Priesthood of the great Religion of Truth, and who recognize the Society as having been founded by their Messenger to us here in the West, for the purposes which that Messenger avowed as their object. We, at least, I say, whether we will or no, do in very fact by the mere taking of our place, however humble that place may be, in the ranks of this Society, become identified with the lower or presbytery order of this great Priesthood, of which I have spoken, and if this be so, then indeed does the study of the rise and fall of the former branches of this same order of the Priesthood, and the causes which have tended invariably to their decay, become to us a matter of very vital importance, and worthy of our most serious attention. To compare the less with the greater, just as it is right and proper, not with a view to making man's body immortal, but with the purpose of prolonging human life to its utmost limits, and hereby postponing to the latest possible moment the hour of dissolution and death, for those who practice the healing arts, to make careful and profound study of the causes which have in the past tended to curtail life, before they proceed to devise methods to prolong it; so is it necessary for us, if we would prolong the vitality of the organization to which we have allied ourselves and postpone the day of our demise as a society, to make this same careful study of past Priesthoods, and then take such steps as we can to guard against that which we consider has proved their doom. To postpone, I say, the hour of death, which sets its seal on all that is born into this world, and thus as long as possible to gain for the Divine ray, which functions through this body of the Theosophical Society, as long an incarnation as it may be in our power to procure; that when the hour strikes and the ray is once more withdrawn it may be laid aside, not a mere wreck of its former self, having drifted [Page 10] to its end through long years of imbecility, crippled in mind and body, but rather that when death releases it from further service, though traces of age may be shown in furrows graven on its brow by hard toil in the service of humanity, the fire kindled originally at the altar of Truth may still be found burning within it more brightly even than in the heyday of its youth. And of this we may rest assured, that if we now, and those who hereafter may take our places do in any measure succeed in achieving this honourable eventual end to the cause of the Society, that when the time again arrives for the rebirth of this ray from the Divine which is now manifesting, that the good Karma which has been set up in the past will ensure a far more glorious rebirth than we, perchance, can dream of now.
In conclusion, with regard to the process of deterioration in the Presbytery order of the Priesthood I have suggested individual study as to the underlying causes, but I would lay stress on what seems to me to be mainly at the root of the mischief. I refer to selfishness and separateness, and this is what we must especially guard against at the present time, if we would not betray our cause. Let every effort be for others rather than for ourselves, let us set our faces against Priestcraft in all its hydraheaded forms, and above all let us seek for what is true in all that differs from our own modes of thought, try and foster and encourage that. The foundations cannot always be of the same material, but we must get to work with that we have to hand, and provided that the rock, such as it is, is true and sound, we had better make use of it rather than cast it on one side because it does not happen to be of the exact quality we should have preferred.
Our duty as builders is to build, and that we must do with the materials to hand in true and workmanlike manner, and if we are in earnest in seeking the rock it is rarely we shall seek in vain. The thought I would leave with you is that though unconsecrated by any ritual, bound by no dogma, blessed by no church, we have each one of us none the less his allotted place in the ranks of the only true and eternal Priesthood, namely, the Priesthood of Truth.
Go to Top of this page
Back to our On Line Documents
Back to our Main Page
A free sample copy of our bilingual magazine can be sent to you. This offer is only good for a mailing to a Canadian address. You have to supply a mailing address.
The Canadian membership of $25.00 includes the receipt of four seasonal issues of our magazine "The Light Bearer" . If you are a resident of Canada send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org requesting a packet of information and your free copy of our magazine
For membership outside of Canada send a message to the International Secretary in Adyar, India email@example.com
For a problem viewing one of our documents - or to report an error in a document - send a note
to the webmaster at firstname.lastname@example.org
We will try to answer any other query -if you would send a note to email@example.com
This document is a publication of the
Canadian Theosophical Association (a regional association of the Theosophical Society in Adyar)
89 Promenade Riverside,
St-Lambert, QC J4R 1A3
To reach the President - Pierre Laflamme dial 450-672-8577
or Toll Free - from all of Canada 866-277-0074
or you can telephone the national secretary at 905-455-7325