The Evolution of The Universe

Annie Besant's Second book Review
The Secret Doctrine

"How swiftly some of the main points had been grasped," Dr. Besant remarks in her Autobiography, comparing her first review of The Secret Doctrine in the Pall Mall Gazette - (25 April 1889) with the second review which appeared two months later in Charles Bradlaugh's weekly paper, The National Reformer - (23 June 1889). The first review appeared in our January issue; the second is repeated below. Not only does the re-production of these early reviews synchronize with the jubilee edition of The Secret Doctrine published at Adyar, but they reveal the magnificent mind which Annie Besant brought to her first encounter with Theosophy.

The Secret Doctrine. by Mme. Blavatsky,. in two vols. (London: Theosophical Publishing Co., 7 Duke Street.

The National Reformer reaches so many different types of readers, all of whom must be more or less liberal-minded, that it seems likely that among them all some will be found to take interest in the unfamiliar views of the universe set forth in this very remarkable work. Mme. Blavatsky, from whose pen it comes to us, is a personality as remarkable as her book. She has been lauded as the apostle of a new revelation; denounced as the inventor of the greatest imposture of the age. That she is an impostor no one who knows her will believe; while the fact that she is possessed of wide and deep oriental learning, and has access to rare and recondite sources of information, will be apparent to anyone who even skims these volumes.

But skimming is more likely to repel than to attract: the unfamiliar archaism and yet more unfamiliar mysticism of the Book of Dzyan, which is claimed as one of the oldest MSS. in the world; the subtle metaphysics, which become wholly unintelligible and even contradictory unless the delicate gradations of phrase be noted and understood; the Oriental atmosphere in which the mental images live and move; the antagonism of the whole intellectual trend to the thought of our Western civilization; all this is but too likely to make the 19th century Englishman raise his eyebrows, shrug his shoulders, and throw the book down. For the Orient begins to study the universe just where the Occident ceases to study. With telescope and with microscope, with scalpel and with battery, Western Science interrogates Nature, adding fact to fact, storing experience after experience, but coming ever to gulfs unfathomable by its plummets, to heights unscalable by its ladders. Wide and masterful in its answers to the "How?", the "Why?" ever eludes it, and causes remain enwrapped in gloom.

Eastern Science uses as its scientific instrument the penetrating faculties of the mind alone, and regarding the material plane as maya, illusion, seeks in the mental and spiritual planes of being the causes of the material effects. There, to it, is the only reality; there the true existence of which the visible universe is but the shadow.

The ladder of evolution

It is clear that for such investigations some further mental equipment is necessary than that normally afforded by the human body.

And here comes the "parting of the ways" between East and West. For the study of the material universe, our five senses, aided by the instruments invented by science, may suffice. For all that we can hear and see, taste and handle, these accustomed servitors, though often blundering, are the best available guides to knowledge. But it lies in the nature of the case that they are useless when the investigation is to be into modes of existence which cannot impress themselves on our nerve-ends. For instance: what we know as colour is the vibration frequency of etheric waves striking on the retina of the eye; between certain definite limits - 759 trillions of blows for the maximum, 436 trillions for the minimum - these waves give rise in us to the sensation which the brain translates into colour.

(Why the 436 trillion blows at one end of a nerve become "Red" at the other end we do not know; we chronicle the fact, but cannot explain it.) But our capacity to respond to the vibration cannot limit the vibrational capacity of the ether; to us the higher and lower rates of vibration do not exist, but if our sense of vision were more sensitive we should see where now we are blind.

Following this line of thought we realize that matter may exist in forms unknown to us, in modifications to which our senses are unable to respond. Now steps in the Eastern sage and says: "That which you say may be, is; we have developed and cultivated senses as much superior to yours as your eye is superior to that of the jelly-fish; we have evolved mental and spiritual faculties which enable us to investigate on the higher planes of being with as much certainty as you are investigating on the physical plane; there is nothing supernatural in the business, any more than your knowledge is supernatural, although much above that accessible to the fish; we do not speculate on these higher forms of existence; we know them, by personal study, just as you know the fauna and flora of your world. The powers we possess are not supernatural; they are latent in every human being, and will be evolved as the race progresses. All that we have done is to evolve them more rapidly than our neighbours, by a procedure as open to you as it was to us. Matter is everywhere, but it exists in seven modifications of which you know only four, and until lately knew only three; in those higher forms reside the causes of which you see the effects in the lower, and to know these causes you must develop the capacity to take cognisance of the higher planes."

Unless evolution be a dream, or we have reached the topmost rung of its ladder - a tolerably absurd assumption - there is nothing irrational per se in this statement. Whether it be true, whether such men with highly evolved psychical faculties exist, is a matter for evidence: some people are as certain of their existence as they are of the existence of their own fathers and mothers; and those who know nothing about the matter are somewhat hasty if they take on themselves to deny it. It may be further suggested, as a hint towards further mental evolution, that it is beyond the possibility of doubt that psychical faculties not yet normal are showing themselves in many persons: clairvoyance, mesmerism, hypnotism, point to the existence, under abnormal conditions, of an inner vision that transcends the eye-power, and of faculties not yet understood.

The grave difficulty in all investigations in this as yet little trodden region of psychology, is the tendency to lose control of the judgment in face of the abnormal; the grave danger lies in the possibility of upsetting the mental balance, of so straining the mind that the student may cross the line which separates sanity from insanity.

Secret knowledge

This introduction seems to me necessary in order to lead any reader who is new to the phase of thought with which we are concerned, to grasp something of the ideas which underlie The Secret Doctrine. For these ideas come from "The Wise Men of the East," in whose hands, as in the hands of their predecessors, it is stated that the MSS. are on which the present work is based. In an antiquity before which Roman and Greek and Hebrew are but as plants of yesterday, Indian sages thought, observed, and pondered on their observations, generation after generation taking up the task. The garnered knowledge was ever kept secret from the mass of ordinary men, revealed only to those who after long probation became Initiates. With the evolution of the race has come the time when some of this knowledge would be useful to mankind, and during the last few years portions of it have filtered out. In the book before us we have the record of the evolution of the universe, and the genesis of man, which whoso will read let him gird up the loins of his mind for prolonged and strenuous effort.

Briefest outline only can here be given for two reasons: first, that space would not allow of lengthened exposition; second, that anyone who wants to understand the Secret Doctrine must study it for himself. You cannot map a continent on the palm of your hand, nor compress a mountain into a marble. Briefly then:

Cosmic origins

Ere the visible universe comes into existence there is Absolute Be-ness - Being in the abstract, boundless, infinite, changeless. On this conception we will not dwell: every student knows the endless contradictions into which we flounder when we strive to describe the Absolute in terms of which relation is the essence. The moment we begin to be precise, we contradict.

At the commencement of a cycle awakens the Unmanifested Logos - abstract and potential ideation, the root of the later Mahat, the universal, intelligent soul - and thence the second Logos with its double aspect, Purusha and Prakriti - Spirit-Matter, "Father-Mother" - and Mahat the Son. From this Triangle of Being, Purusha, Prakriti, and Mahat go forth all life and form, in numerous hierarchies, on the seven planes of existence. Spirit crystallizes, as it were, into matter through the first three, becoming more and more consolidated and gross, reaching its turning point in the fourth, becoming intellectually self-conscious as it thus grows denser; from the fourth it climbs upward again, shaking off the grossness of its material envelope but retaining the experience it could not otherwise have won, until, wise with all it has gathered during its struggles and its wanderings, it returns whence it came forth and rests. Such a cycle forms a Manvantara, and this is followed by "the sleep of Brahma"; when he awakes, another cycle commences, but on a higher plane. My readers must turn to the book to fill in this bare outline, and they will find it worth their while.


What part does man play in this vast drama of a universe? Needless to say, he is not the only living form in a Cosmos which, for the most part, is uninhabitable by man. As Science has shown living forms everywhere on the material plane, races in each drop of water, life throbbing in every leaf and blade, so the Secret Doctrine points to living forms on higher planes of existence, each suited to its environment, till all space thrills with life and nowhere is there death, but only change. Amid these myriads are some evolving towards humanity, some evolving away from humanity as we know it, divesting themselves of its grosser parts. For man is regarded as a sevenfold being, four of these parts belonging to the animal body and perishing at, or soon after death; while three form his higher self, his true individuality, and these persist and are immortal. These form the Ego, and it is this which passes through many incarnations, learning life's lessons as it goes, working out its own redemption within the limits of an inexorable law, sowing seeds, of which it ever reaps the harvest, building its own fate with tireless fingers, and finding nowhere, in the measureless time and space around it, any that can lift for it one weight it created, bear for it one burden it has gathered, unravel for it one. tangle it has twisted, close for it one gulf that it has dug.

The physical and mental evolution of man is traced step by step for us in the second volume, the life of each race, with its characteristics, being sketched. How curiously this Eastern teaching now supports, now contradicts, our Western views, will be marked with interest by the careful reader. One matter, small in itself, but significant in its bearings, may here be put on record - the knowledge, quite lately reached by Western Science, that the pineal gland, of much debated function, is the remains of "the third eye." This has now been "discovered" by the West, but it is a very very old story in the East.

Science and the social order

Very attractive, and showing wide acquaintance with the latest discoveries of science, is the third. section of Volume I, "Science and the Secret Doctrine contrasted." It is of curious interest to note how some of the latest theories seem to catch glimpses of the occult doctrines, as though Science were standing on the very threshold of knowledge which shall make all her past seem small. Already her hand is trembling towards the grasp of forces beside which all those now at her command are insignificant. How soon will her grip fasten on them? Let us hope not until the social order has been transformed, lest they should only give more to those who have, and leave the wretched still more wretched by force of contrast. Knowledge used by selfishness widens the gulf that divides man from man and race from race, and we may well shrink from the idea of new powers in Nature being yoked to the car of Greed. Hence the wisdom of those "Masters," in whose name Mme. Blavatsky speaks, has ever denied the knowledge which is power until Love's lesson has been learned, and has given only into the hands of the selfless the control of those natural forces which, misused, would wreck society.

from a reprint in The Theosophist, Feb 1939, p335


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