from The Theosophist Dec 1981
Most members of the several movements to which her work gave rise will agree that Madame Blavatsky was a "messenger"; but what was the nature of the message? Many may think that this is fairly obvious. They imagine that they can read her writings and pass on to others what she said.
Those who proceed in this way tend to expound a system of thought which they represent as hers. But there are others who see a certain difficulty in this. Colonel Olcott remarked on the curious fact that, in much that she wrote, it did not seem to matter if one altered the order of the paragraphs, a fact brought home to him while he was assisting her to organize and complete the text of Isis Unveiled. Much that she wrote was not, in fact, addressed to the tidy mind that approaches things systematically and wants to have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Bishop Leadbeater, who had a strong temperamental preference for orderly and systematic exposition, wrote that "her mind, so far as we could understand it, for it was a very gigantic mind, worked somewhat differently from ours. If one may say it with respect and reverence, it was of an Atlantean type in that it massed together vast accumulations of facts but did not make much effort at arranging them".
"Swami T. Subba Rao", he went on," said that The Secret Doctrine was a heap of precious stones. There is no question that they are precious stones, but one must classify them for oneself; [H.P.B] did not attempt to do that for us, for she did not feel the need of it at all".
But must we really classify them? And do those who approach Madame Blavatsky's writings in that spirit, trying to extract systems and put things in what they think is the right order, not miss something fundamental? She herself, in what she wrote, sometimes dropped passing comments which show that she understood herself to be dealing with something into which we may have insights but which cannot be made the subject of explanation or argument or orderly presentation.
Early in The Secret Doctrine she refers to various Indian systems of philosophy and then speaks of "the Esoteric Philosophy, which reconciles all these systems and the nearest exponent of which is the Vedanta as expounded by the Advaita Vedantists".
Advaitism might be translated as non two-ism. It does not just say that all is One. It simply asserts that there is no other, no antithesis. It denies the dualism which has been the basis of all our scientific and systematic thinking.
It is customary to call our usual way of thinking "Cartesian dualism", after the French philosopher Descartes, who said, "I think, therefore I am", and took as the basis for his world view a duality of self and not-self, knower and known, subject and object.
Erosion of dualism
In our own times this dualistic view, though still firmly enthroned, is beginning to be eroded a little. The recognition of scientific situation in which the observer must himself be seen as part of the experiment or an inseparable part of what he is observing, and certain developments in physics, have begun to demand a new understanding of the nature of consciousness. But the assertion that two-ness is an illusion which experience dissipates is very ancient. A classical statement of this occurs in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1.41) where we are told that one who is drawing closer to reality finds that the knower, the knowledge and the known are one.
It is natural that anybody who approaches The Secret Doctrine or any other work of Madame Blavatsky should begin by asking himself, "What is there in this for me?' From that basis he will probably try to arrange the material in some way that will make it converge upon his own interests. But in so doing he carries into it a dualism which Blavatsky's message, sometimes directly but mostly by implication, repeatedly denies. The message for the "me " is that its separate selfhood is an illusion and that the supposed antithesis of "me" and " not me" has no reality.
Viewed superficially, there is much in Madame Blavatsky's writings, and in the Theosophical literature that followed them, which is rather flattering to "me". Reading it, we may say, "I am something much more splendid than I seem to be. In my true nature I am a Monad, a spark of ultimate Divinity". But this is the very view which is brushed aside in The Secret Doctrine as "ignorance". We are told there (1.230) that "the Spiritual Monad is One, Universal, Boundless and Impartite" and that its "Rays form what we, in our ignorance, call the "Individual Monads" of men". So the "me" cannot really "have" a Monad. It may not appropriate to itself the splendour of That which is boundless or grasp to itself a fragment of the impartite.
The source of our illusion is indicated in the much quoted sentence from The Voice of the Silence which tells us that "the mind is the great slayer of the Real". The mind slays the Real by being fixated to the defence and perpetuation of a "me". It classifies all experience according to whether it is pro "me" or anti "me", and it focuses consciousness through the distorting lens of dualism which breaks everything up into self and not-self.
In a sense the "me" is real enough. It certainly exists, as a complex of memories and reactions. It can look after itself, cross the road more or less safely, give lectures at the Theosophical Society and so many other quite clever things. But it is not the Self. It is something temporarily brought into being in the service of the Self. When its function is finished, consciousness is to be dissociated from it - freed from imprisoning identification with it. Possibly part of its function is to provide the occasion for this dissociation.
The fixated mind which slays the Real is freed, not by any accumulation of imagines in memory, but by a simplification of its own contents and by being finally emptied of those contents, including the habitual image of "me".
Gratification of the "me"
The first impulse of a "me" when confronted by the literature of modern theosophy, is to start collecting from it information gratifying to itself. It may, for example, study the notion of reincarnation as a way of extending the "me" into the past and future, pursuing love affairs in ancient Egypt and hopes of occult promotion in future lives. Madame Blavatsky herself did not show any great interest in reincarnation except as an illustration of a still more fundamental periodicity in nature. Yet study of such a subject is not in vain if it leads to small concepts being absorbed into larger ones and the world image in the mind becoming more comprehensive, unified and simple.
The liberated person as portrayed in The Voice of The Silence is certainly not mindless. There we are told that "his mind, like a becalmed and boundless ocean, spreadeth out in shoreless space". That is not, of course, the fixated mind of any segregated "me".
And the true Theosophist, as understood by Madame Blavatsky, had to become, not the anxious and the competitive keeper of a separated fragment of life but "a mere beneficent force in Nature". There, alone, is the fulfilment and the splendour.
But here one pauses, for each of us is probably still thinking largely in terms of "me". Indeed, Madame Blavatsky herself in daily life often expressed herself very formidably as a "me". How, then, can we respond to this message that she brought? Does it ask too much? How are we to read what she wrote?`
There are those who are naturally learned, who can carry - and like to carry - large and complex concepts in the memory; they may be able to read such a work as The Secret Doctrine very solidly. Even if they often build systems out of what they read, those systems can be relied upon gradually to destroy one another in time. But there are many who cannot study in that way and who will gain little but a kind of indigestion if they try to force themselves to read and follow The Secret Doctrine as a feat of intellectual continuity.
There are, indeed, certain passages that readers are directed to, passages that stand out as significant, certain "set pieces". Such as the three principles set out in the Proem. But even these may not be the passages that will speak most directly and intimately to everybody. For many, the best approach is to start reading and go on until they come to something that is strange, challenging and poetic, something that is momentarily seen as being at odds with values, assumptions and thought habits they had hitherto taken for granted. At that point, the reader may shut the book and carry away that fresh insight, not only in thought but into the things of everyday life. Later, he may come back to the book for more. Each student has his own needs, and what causes one to stop and shut the book will be passed over by another.
The message that Madame Blavatsky brought is not addressed to the argumentative mind. It seeks to speak to the heart, to the intuition, to that in us which can awaken to a wholeness of things that lies beyond what our mental process can infer. It is not something with a beginning or an end, nor is nit a cumulative process or a goal set up for achievement by a "me". It is an invitation to us to awaken from the dream that we have hitherto imagined to be life.
Dr Hugh Shearman, a former Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Northern Ireland, is well known as a lecturer, and as the author of The Passionate Necessity, The Purpose of Tragedy and Modern Theosophy.
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