Theosophy and Religion
by Geoffrey Farthing,
H.P. Blavatsky (H.P.B.) and the Masters were at considerable pains to explain the position of Theosophy in relation to all the world's exoteric denominational religions. The Masters were also quite specific as to the intentions and hopes for the Theosophical Society (T.S.) in the matter of religion. Considerable confusion as to what the attitude of the Society to religion should be has grown up over the years because the distinction between the T.S. and Theosophy itself has not been kept in mind. The T.S. jealously guards and promotes freedom of thought and the religious persuasion of its members. Any member can be an adherent of any religion or none. Theosophy itself, however, is a specific body of teaching originating with the Masters. It was given out abundantly and magnificently in the writings of H.P.B. She declared that Theosophy is religion itself, but not a religion. It is particularly to be distinguished from any specific version of religion. A further clear distinction was made between the esoteric or occult aspects of religion and the purely exoteric outward and popular versions of it. Over the years this has been overlooked and forgotten, if it was indeed ever popular knowledge. Theosophy is Occult Science, dealing with the truths behind all manifest existence, all religions, and is behind all the ideas that constitute the normal modes of thought. We are, however not mindful of anything to do with the occult; we are in fact completely ignorant of it.
Another point very clearly made in the early theosophical writings is the distinction between the ordinary personal man and his spiritual divine counterpart, the latter being the proper subject of proper religion. Exoteric religions necessarily relate very largely to the personal man and to material, objective existence. They are based on ideas - mostly man-made - of divinity which vary considerably between the religions, and on codes of ethical and moral behaviour by which the ordinary man may order his life in order to achieve 'salvation'. The ideas of what constitutes salvation vary from an after-life with a union with 'god' to reincarnation in bodies, whereby after many lives one may rise in the scale of being until eventually liberated from the need to incarnate. In the scriptures of the great religions as, for example, in the Upanishads these ideas are much expanded and refined.
Theosophical literature indicates that the teachings, the dogmas, in some popular religions are limited and often distorted versions of great truths, the 'eternal verities' (so called in The Key to Theosophy). Exoteric religious beliefs, often expressed as allegories, are based on their scriptures. It must be remembered, however, that these, although maybe divinely inspired initially, have become very imperfect expressions of the original truths. Like sunshine breaking through the leafy canopy of an otherwise dark wood, there are the occasional brilliantly illuminating passages. All scriptures, whatever claims otherwise are made for them, were written down by men more or less ignorant of the realities of which they were writing. In the course of many years and generations of copyists and commentators, these scriptures suffered alteration, omissions and additions, some by error but many by intent to justify current dogmas.
A hierarchical priesthood with its own ceremonial priestcraft is a common feature of most exoteric religions. The priests claim to have been appointed by God and anointed into his service. This distinguishes them from ordinary men to whom they then claim a duty or right to 'minister'. This ministration is virtually mediation between God and man, resulting in the idea of separation, and God out there.
In the past a series of reformers, of which Buddha and Jesus were two notable examples, tried to restore something of the 'eternal verities' to religion, one of which was the fundamental idea of the essential divinity of every man. They also sought to liberate men from institutional formalism, ritual and ceremonial, as a substitute for right living. They taught compliance with truly spiritual laws to guide them into a kindly, just and disciplined way of life, together with a devotional respect for his religious teachers.
A distinction must be made between the actual feeling of devotion of the religious devotee and that to which he is devoted. He is devoted to his teachers or God. These are also the idols or symbols representing his Saints or Deities which he invests with qualities and powers. They are the objects of his devotion. It is, however, his devotion, his reverence, his adoration, which is real, which is significant. This is the nature of real religion, much the object of his 'devotion'.
In exoteric religions the creation and governing of the universe is ascribed to Deity, see also as omniscient and omnipotent. Man, with all his limitations and weaknesses, and with all their attendant hardship and suffering, naturally seeks guidance, comfort, blessing, forgiveness and the favours of such a Deity. He has been taught by his representatives on earth, his priests, to do this. Hence supplicatory prayers and, more primitively, even by appeasement by sacrifices. The more valuable the sacrifice the more its acceptability and therefore its efficacy. The highest sacrifice of this kind was of course human sacrifice culminating, in Christianity, with the sacrifice of God's only Son. There could not be anything more valuable than that. It sufficed for all time and thereafter no more individual sacrifices were necessary, so teaches that Church.
All of the foregoing relates to the 'theological' aspects of exoteric religions but nothing can detract from the service rendered humanity by the countless generations of humble and devout men and women, nor from the work of those priests and clergy who have selflessly served their flocks during whole lifetimes of humble submission to the 'will of god'. All this service and sacrifice, however, sprang from the motivation within the server: that was real, not necessarily what prompted it: that might have been a matter of mere belief or blind faith quite divorced from reality.
What then is the attitude of Theosophy and the Theosophical Society to religion? First Theosophy, as such, must be distinguished from its Society. Theosophy is that knowledge, possessed in its fullness by Initiates and Adepts of the arcane sciences, the Ancient Wisdom. It is knowledge of the all-embracing cosmic process, the nature of its departments or levels of its 'being', both inner and outer, and of the workings of the Law (including all natural laws) by which the Cosmos operates. It is a knowledge of man's complete nature, inseverable from the all-embracing nature of Cosmos. Such knowledge is possessed only by those who have developed faculties to a stage far beyond that achieved by the ordinary men. According to their degree, they have gained access to the secrets of hidden Nature. Something of this knowledge forms our theosophical teachings which were given us by the two Masters primarily concerned with the founding of the Theosophical Society. This great knowledge, this Ancient Wisdom, is of an order quite different from that possessed by even the most learned of men. Only hints as to its true nature can be given in plain language, in words. Nevertheless, a vast picture of cosmology and the history of the human race on this planet was given us in our theosophical literature, in Isis Unveiled, in The Secret Doctrine and other of H.P.B.'s writings, as well as the actual letters received from the two Masters by A.P. Sinnett.
As for the Theosophical Society, according to these writings this was intended to be the earthly vehicle for propagating the teachings, albeit slowly. It was also intended to become "the cornerstone of the future religions of humanity". This puts the Society in direct relationship to religion, but religion as clearly distinct from a religion. Real religion, or religion itself, is of inestimable importance for the total well-being of humanity, the salvation of which literally depends on it. The present exoteric religions are perhaps the greatest divisive element in human affairs. From them, directly or indirectly, stem incalculable strife and suffering. The differences, which are entirely man-made, between the religions are exploited by unscrupulous politicians for their own purposes. These differences, however, are not of significant facts, of matters ethical or moral, but of man-made belief structures based mostly on defective scriptural writings and which vary between the religions concerned.
These differences are exacerbated by the identification of a particular religion with a state, country or nation: for example, the Jews commonly regard themselves as a nation (Israel), not just as co-religionists; Sikhs regard the Punjab as their state or country; Islam is identified with many countries. This identification can be the cause of the bitterest strife and dissension. This is especially the case where the religion is 'militant'. Some further causes of division - sometimes with resentment and even fear - are the petty rules and regulations, obviously of no interest to any Deity of any standing, about dress, diet, behaviour, caste marks, circumcision, special "holy" places, saints' and other religious days and festivals. All these cannot be of any real spiritual significance but they all have dire separative social consequences. They all relate to worldly 'personal' matters and are irrelevant in any truly spiritual context. It can be argued that they impose necessary discipline but is not the only real discipline a matter of self-discipline, and an unselfish life.
Naturally religion, even the most spiritual, must have its characteristic forms of expression, its usages, according to differences of culture, language, social customs, even education, but all such differences can be accommodated in a framework of 'truth'. It is this 'truth' we here call Theosophy which the Theosophical Society was founded to promote. Real religion being spiritual cannot, however, be institutionalized nor commercialized; it must be free of any kind of charge to everyone.
Against all the present destructive differences there is the fact of the essential spiritual nature of Nature herself, which reflects that of man. For his happiness and welfare, mankind needs a religion related to nature: he needs to become attuned to her. At present and to his cost man regards Nature only objectively, materially to be exploited. Of her inner nature, her life, and of his corresponding inner nature, he is virtually unaware or chooses to ignore. Theosophy, the most noble of sciences, stresses the invisible aspects of Nature and in its teaching of Unity reminds us always of our intimate relationship to her.
Reverting to the matter of Theosophy and religion, some extracts from the original theosophical literature are illustrative. Asked whether Theosophy was a religion, H.P.B. replied:
She went on to point out that every religion regards every other as false and heretical, and concerning these different religions she concluded:
Then she was asked, "Your claim is, then, that all the great religions are derived from Theosophy ..", and the answer: "Precisely so ..."
Pursuing further the point that Theosophy is the origin of all religious teachings, is the following paragraph in the Preface to The Secret Doctrine:
Additionally in the Introductory to the same work H.P.B. quotes (Introductory page xx) as follows:
On page 341 of Vol.I of the The Secret Doctrine there is the following:
Regarding the deterioration of pure religion, there is the following passage on p 503 of Vol.II of The Secret Doctrine. It refers to a period in the history of the world when there was a prolonged and terrible drought which led to once abundantly watered lands being turned into sandy deserts, but this catastrophe also led:
Regarding the debasement of religion and its divisive and other deleterious effects upon mankind, a Master, making reference to the sources of evil, said (Mahatma Letters No.X, 2nd Ed. 57/58):
The above passages may appear as unreasonably iconoclastic but a dispassionate observation of what is happening in the world today amply justifies what was said. This is negative, but Theosophy is very positive towards religion proper. It must be stressed, however, that Theosophy is a matter of Truth: of the truths in Nature, to which it ascribes depths undreamt of by the ordinary observer who sees only the appearances of manifest existence. Theosophy insists that truth is one and there cannot be contradictory versions of it. It distinguishes clearly between knowledge of the fundamental verities on one hand and beliefs, i.e. mere mental constructs, ideas, opinions, of blind faith, on the other.
A passage in The Key to Theosophy, quoting a Dr Wilder, reads as follows:
and again quoting what Ammonius Saccas taught:
Following this H.P.B. said in answer to a question:
Later, quoting a Dr Buck in The Key to Theosophy (Original Ed., p 18):
In H.P.B.'s The Secret Doctrine we learn that in man the religious sense is inherent. This originates from the intimate relationship that he has with the hierarchies of beings who have progressed further along the path of evolution than as yet he has. Theosophy teaches us that man has a seven-aspected nature. In his personality the ordinary man we know during life is fourfold. The higher three aspects constitute a spiritual entity referred to as his Ego, an enduring, immortal trinity, divine in its true nature as a spark of the One manifest Spiritual Principle. Beings more advanced on the evolutionary path, and having transcended their personal limitations, function at this level.
Telling us about the religion of the very early races of mankind (third and fourth) there is a passage as follows:
This statement is followed by:
As in the man of old, so in the man of today. Each of our inner principles has its origins, its very being, as a result of this endowment by the "bright Spirits" which, although we are now not conscious of them, still enliven the inner worlds.
What then of the debasement of religion from its essential spiritual origins to its present more material forms and its dogmas instead of knowledge? We have this quotation:
H.P.B. explains that Atlantean here is a synonym for sorcerer [The Secret Doctrine Vol.II, 272 fn].
On the next page in The Secret Doctrine there is a passage as follows:
Not only is this latter the basis for the present Judaic religion but it also forms the content of the Old Testament of the present day Christian religious sects.
These excerpts amongst many others demonstrate the dichotomy between religion as an innate sense in man wherein he feels his direct connection with the divine nature of life, and man-made dogmatic forms of religion, of belief and faith instead of knowledge. We are, however, still left with the teaching that inherently in his inmost nature each man is, himself, divine with an inseverable connection to the Deity pervading all existence.
In the light of all the foregoing quotations, what then is religion? More especially what is religion from a theosophical point of view? It obviously treats of man's permanent and intimate relationship to deity. For these purposes Theosophy tells us what man is. Theosophy distinguishes two fundamental elements to his being, as previously explained, one that of his personal nature - man in a physical body operating in worldly surroundings with a soul, a psycho-mental component of his total nature - and secondly man as a spiritual being of essentially the same nature as all that can be regarded as divine. The one, his personality, being mortal and the other, his spiritual individuality, being immortal. Religion in the theosophical sense is the learning of the practices leading to uniting in consciousness of these two aspects of his being. These practices involve the purification of his lower personal self until it is 'redeemed' and becomes worthy of absorption into his upper Triad, his three higher aspects or principles. Worthy means becoming truly spiritualised, which in turn means the sublimation of all that is carnal, gross and selfish in the ordinary man. To a more or less degree this process is started as the result of experience and thereby the growth and refinement of his more human, as opposed to animal, qualities and faculties. This is a slow process involving many incarnations, during which the man learns to live according to the spiritual laws of Nature and Cosmos generally. His whole being slowly changes with a consequent reorientation of his thinking and behaviour which become more and more directed towards the higher things of life. In theosophical parlance this is the process of forming the bridge of Antahkarana between the personal man and his divine inner Being. Some religious instruction, particularly regarding unselfishness - and all that that means - if followed conscientiously, constitutes the principal means of achieving this consummation. In a very large measure this is the grand theosophical message and teaching, particularly as it relates to real religion or spiritual growth, the development of divine life in us.
What is the role of the Theosophical Society, as distinct from Theosophy, in this process? Whereas Theosophy is the knowledge of the grand cosmic process and man's part in it: a process which has been described as 'ever-becoming', the Theosophical Society as a human institution was intended to be the vehicle through which those grand teachings were to be conveyed to mankind generally. That was the declared intention of the Masters who were responsible for the founding of the Society. One of the very first letters that we had from the Master K.H. dated 1881, conveyed to us by A.P. Sinnett, was a message from the Master K.H.'s Master, the Mahachohan. In it there is the phrase, partly quoted earlier, "the Theosophical Society was chosen as the corner-stone, the foundation of the future religions of humanity". Some nine years later, in the last letter generally acknowledged to be genuine from the Master K.H. to Dr Annie Besant in 1900, he stated that: "the T.S. was meant to be the cornerstone of the future religions of humanity". Perhaps we ought to notice that sadly these two statements are in the past tense. They do, however, convey the Masters' intention in setting up the Theosophical Society. Is it now too late for the Society to fulfil that desired end? Surely it should not be. Can it ever be too late for it to propagate its message of Truth? Is Truth not always relevant and appropriate? The very first words of the 1881 letter are:
"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. Yet it is absolutely necessary to inculcate it gradually, enforcing its theories, unimpeachable facts for those who know with direct inferences deduced from and corroborated by the evidence furnished by modern exact science".
This requires from members of the T.S. two things: first a knowledge of the doctrine that the Masters promulgated and second an awareness of 'the evidence furnished by modern exact science'. Because there is obviously no-one else who can do it, a considerable responsibility is on the members of the Theosophical Society. About the duties of which - or its members - much is said in The Key to Theosophy. First the members of Society must become theosophists, or at least attain to some knowledge of the Theosophy as then taught. Early in The Key to Theosophy, however, there is the following warning:
This is an important qualification. So many of us feel a right to our own opinions but, contrary to the usual view (freedom of thought, etc.), it seems we cannot hold on to them, at least not if we would ever know Theosophy and become Theosophists. The teaching is quite definite on this point.
There is a reference to Theosophy as "the genuine doctrines of the Wisdom-Religion".
There is also much else in the theosophical literature to indicate that the Society was intended to be the means of promulgating a knowledge of Theosophy (see for example Key, p 16, quoting Dr Buck) and there were a number of specific indications as to what constituted Theosophy (too large a subject to be entered into an article of this nature). We can conclude, however, with the following relevant passage in The Key to Theosophy (original edition p 56):
It is a knowledge of these everlasting 'eternal verities', truths - not opinions or beliefs - that is proper Theosophy and it is the attempt to live our lives in accordance with them that constitutes practical Theosophy or real religious living. This latter requires that selflessness on the part of each of us so much extolled even by exoteric religions, and a genuine recognition of our intimate inner links with all other people and all that that entails. This is a realization of the fundamental tenet of Theosophy, the universal brotherhood. But the objects of the Society insist that this brotherhood must be without the distinctions of race, caste, creed and colour. Can we genuinely subscribe to those requirements especially where our prejudices are concerned? Do we really not feel differences of caste or class? Can we really tolerate other creeds? Do we not feel that our belief are the only true ones? And so with race or colour?
As members of the T.S. our difficulty and responsibility is to discover "the accumulated utterances of humanity's great teachers .." and distinguish them from the voluminous utterances of others - mostly not so great. Our original literature as given us by the Masters, mostly through H.P.B. but some of it directly, as in their Letters to A.P. Sinnett, is our sure guide.
There is a question in The Key to Theosophy (p 21), "Then what is the good of joining the so-called Theosophical Society in that case?" (i.e. when there are genuine Theosophists outside it). The answer was:
"None, except the advantage of getting esoteric instructions, the genuine doctrines of the Wisdom-Religion, and if the real programme is carried out, deriving much help from mutual aid and sympathy. Union is strength and harmony, and well regulated simultaneous efforts produce wonders ..".
Can we so aim to produce wonders, through our membership of a united Theosophical Society - and having become knowledgeable Theosophists to the best of our ability - doing our share in the eventual salvation of humanity, by the only means possible - every man becoming his own saviour.