Theosophy as Religion
by Geoffrey Farthing,
To consider Theosophy as religion we must first have clear ideas of what Theosophy and religion are. Theosophy is ultimately the knowledge of the real inner nature of Cosmos. Cosmos here means that part of the universe with which we are concerned. Because man is a reflection in miniature of Cosmos in its every aspect, as microcosm to the macrocosm, he reflects it in every particular of his nature. Theosophy teaches us that the whole process of existence, from the tiniest to the largest thing, is living, manifesting aspects, according to its nature, of a single universal Life. It postulates a universal Law, an intelligent ordering of all the processes of Nature which constitutes a vast evolutionary scheme wherein everything, every creature, progresses by stages to a degree of relative perfection: the degree being dependent upon the creature's place in the scale of evolution. According to this Law, everything in manifestation from an atom to a world has a limited life: it must have had a beginning and inevitably it will have an end. Theosophy postulates, however, that there is 'THAT' behind the process which endures throughout eternity; this is the Unknown and forever Unknowable which never manifests but sustains all Creation.
Theosophy also teaches us of Unity: the whole vast cosmic process is a living Oneness. It manifests One Life. This it does in the infinite diversity of living things, each a 'life' itself. Every individual life is not only a spark of the One Life, as is often said, but it is that Life itself. Man as part of this process is a unit within humanity. Humanity, as a kingdom in Nature, is a stage in the journey to human perfection. The lives through which the Life operates constitute a series of hierarchies; the lower ones comprising the "atomic lives" of the very constituents of matter; the higher ones transcending the human state and comprising the intelligent 'operators' or 'governors' of the system.
Theosophy teaches us of two fundamental states of being: one is objective and causative where things in manifestation are actively playing a part in the developmental processes of life; the other is subjective when they are, so to speak, resting, non-active, passively assimilating their experiences gained during active 'life'. This latter state from the active point of view is one that can only be described as non-being, but it is not a state of annihilation. The processes of Life are cyclical. The forms in which life manifests and acts through are necessarily, according to cyclic law, alternating between the active state, as far as we concerned at the physical objective level, and a state of rest as in sleep or so-called death. One is the condition after a day's activity and the other the condition after a lifetime.
Theosophy also teaches us something of the characteristics, in human terms, of the deific Life that can be exhibited in some measure by the developed man, who more and more demonstrates proper human traits of character as opposed to the largely selfish animal ones of the average man. In the developed man we see manifest increasingly wisdom, fearlessness, and compassion, love in its highest form. Every emotion the spiritually developed man evinces shows forth only in its highest, most positive and balanced form. His actions are totally unselfish and generate no Karma; the man has then become an example of the highest human attainment, the complete fulfilment of the divine plan for him. Theosophy is the knowledge, when we have acquired it, of all this and much more.
Against this background we see the accuracy of the justification for the statement that Theosophy is religion: religion itself, not a religion. But wherein lies the distinction? The first major difference between religion as such and a religion is in the basic nature of them both. Religion, as such, is derived from a knowledge of the origins and the nature of Nature, of Cosmos itself, whereas a religion is predominantly a matter of belief and blind faith based on the letter of scripture and on dogmatic assertions as to the cosmic creation and government of Cosmos. Our denominational or sectarian religions are usually dependent entirely on a belief structure propounded by its teachers and leaders who have been for ages past ignorant of the true nature of Cosmos. They have therefore had to rely either upon what they have been taught of what is written in their scriptures and this has necessarily demanded an unquestioning acceptance of the dicta of a hierarchical authority. The point being stressed here is that such a religion is based on a theological dogma requiring views, opinions and beliefs. In contrast Theosophy claims to be based upon information given us by Beings, Initiates, Adepts, who have achieved a super-human stage in evolutionary development and therefore know for themselves the nature of the Cosmos and its processes. No being who has not achieved their degree of development of mental and soul faculties can have this knowledge. Theosophy, as its name implies, is this divine knowledge. It is not speculative. It is empirical, but the 'facts' of which we can become cognizant are entirely dependent on the development of the necessary faculties of comprehension. This is the result of true spiritual aspiration and training; there is no other method.
It is difficult against a normal background and in the ordinary circumstances of life to envisage the depth and extent of these ideas. We do not have any experience by which we can relate to them. We can learn something of their quality from those who have had near-death experiences and who, for example, have told us of their encounter with the 'Being of Light'. This Being of Light would, according to Theosophy, be the man's own Higher Ego, his divine spiritual counterpart: hence the immediate, intimate understanding and sympathy felt in its presence, and the complete lack of censure.
These descriptions of these Beings exemplify for us the quality of the conscious inner life of such a highly developed spiritual Being, who represents the next stage higher than that of the purely mundane human. They tell us something of the essentially divine nature of each of us.
As regards the creation and government of the Universe and our globe Earth, Theosophy teaches us that there are no absolute beginnings. Everything proceeds cyclically from what was before, and is a result of it. Theosophy also postulates that everything, in its degree, is conscious and manifests a corresponding intelligence. This is the basis of the Law. It is all inherent in the many 'lives' comprising, in their hierarchies, all things in Cosmos. Cosmos is therefore self-governing.
One of the prime tenets of Theosophy is that we are dual beings. On the one hand we are ordinary people living our personal lives at personal level with personal interests and concerns. We relate to each other wholly in these terms. The major characteristic of our personal lives is to a very large extent material in its interests and selfish in its motives. We all may have moments otherwise, sometimes gloriously so, but this is not the common run of our lives.
Theosophy tells us that the personal man constitutes our lower 'self', but that it is not the really real one. The really real, the higher 'Self' is a trinity of divine elements, a mind liberated from all the limitations of personality, from all personal concerns, and a spiritual duad, a combination of Spirit itself and of a vehicle for its expression. Both of these are universal in essence, and only become 'individualized' insofar as they are reflected into each individual's higher mind, and therein constitute a persisting entity. It is a divine trinity, an immortal being, and is the recipient and storehouse of all the purely spiritual experiences which result from the many cyclical, successive, personal lives with which, throughout many millennia, according to Theosophy, it is associated. It is said in the theosophical literature that this higher Ego is the only God of which, as personal men, we can be aware. It is not only a reflection or spark of the universal spiritual Life but also, according to the principal of unity, it is that Life, Itself, because in the limit there is nothing else: there is nothing but THE ONE.
These ideas enrich our thinking and if we can accept them, to a large degree set us free. They remove the necessity for blind faith or inadequately supported belief. Most of us need either meaningful inspiration or a guiding ideal, a lofty example. Examples by way of living people who can and do exhibit divine capacities, characteristics and qualities, are very rare. We are more than lucky if we ever know one. This is not to say, however, that there are no advanced human beings who are worthy of our acceptance as exemplars. In Theosophy perfected men are referred to as Adepts or Masters of the Wisdom, and occasionally these are known, seen and communicated with by those worthy of so doing. The attainments of these Masters confirms for us the idea of the possibility of such a development within ourselves.
For most of us inspiration or example must come from our literature, our scriptures. These can and do supply us with our necessary soul food. Whereas spirituality in man is innate, it does need stimulation of the right quality to counteract the gross materiality with which most of us are surrounded.
Apart from our having all the basic information to provide us with the necessary guidance in our lives, the idea of man's perfectibility is vital and goes hand in hand with the idea of progressive spiritual development. We can believe that day to day spiritual growth can be achieved when once we know the direction that our efforts should take. This spiritual growth has its effects in our personalities. We are then able to manifest more of the potentialities of the "Life", or the Spirit. This is exemplified in the stories of the occasional 'spiritual' Master or Teacher who, regardless of his religious persuasion, can work seeming miracles. He can heal, weald powerful influence over people, bring about 'conversions', see into the future, hear 'God's' voice, etc.
We are using the familiar words "we" and "our" here but it must be clearly understood what we are talking about. We are talking about man as a unit, a whole being who in himself combines both the divine and the personal aspects. However, for the great majority of us our innate divinity normally has little influence over us. We are too identified with our personalities and their immediate concerns.
Theosophy tells us that life functions at several levels, referred to as planes when we are dealing with the cosmic picture, and principles when we are dealing with man. It tells us that our post-human Brothers, otherwise the Masters of the Wisdom, the Initiates, the Adepts, have achieved a degree of development in each of these planes far transcending the capability of any ordinary man living his life at the personal level. The significance of this achievement is that it demonstrates that in time we may so develop ourselves as to be able to operate at their lofty level. They have so modified in themselves their principles, or conditioned their component multitudinous 'lives', so as to enable them to operate at the highest levels of consciousness. The effort to emulate them makes our emotional and mental development possible. Those further along the road of development have already enlivened in themselves those aspects of the divine life which would otherwise have remained only potentialities. They have greatly expanded their field of knowledge, demonstrating that we too can achieve similar expansions of consciousness. These progressed Beings are, so to speak, trail-blazers for us.
All the above constitutes the fundamentals of real religion. In this school of life most of us are as yet in the kindergarten.
To come to practicalities, religion can be regarded as spiritual development and some would say that this is the field of yoga but this word now embraces many meanings. H.P.B. advocates Raja Yoga (Patanjali etc.) and Jnana Yoga (see The "Secret Doctrine" and Its Study link) but not Hatha Yoga, about which she says:
The Hatha so called was and still is discountenanced by the Arhats. It is injurious to the health and alone can never develop into Raj Yoga. [see The Secret Doctrine Vol.I p95 footnote1]
This statement is more fully justified in The Collected Writings Vol.XII, p615. link - (note Hatha in link rather than 'Ha˜ha'! which is an error)
If, as the Masters said it was, the Theosophical Society was intended to be "the cornerstone of the future religions of humanity", and this statement was obviously not made with reference to existing religions, to what religions did it refer?
In the Maha Chohan's 'letter' to the Master K.H. there is the statement that, "the doctrine we promulgate being the only true one ..". What is this doctrine? Obviously it is Theosophy. It is often said in the literature that Theosophy is religion, but that it is not a religion. We are told that it is the origin and essence of all religions. These are specific statements. There are other passages which indicate that the Theosophical Society was formed to promote a knowledge of Theosophy. There is a passage in The Key to Theosophy which indicates this object and what it entails:
The spiritual intuitions in man are the proper field of our enquiry and endeavour. Importantly, however, the Society is its members; apart from them there is no Society. As members of that Society it is we who have to seek out bigotry in all religious institutions, and ideas of the supernatural. Theosophy maintains there is nothing super-natural. Nature herself is all-embracing; there is nothing outside, beyond or above it. There is nothing other than UNITY.
Theosophy may be regarded as having two aspects: the first is the essentially spiritual nature of Cosmos, in which mankind must necessarily be included as an integral part, hence his inherent spirituality; the second is the base of knowledge, to the extent that it was given us, of the total cosmic process. It is this knowledge which provides the support to theosophical teachings. These tell us that the Law is the regulator of all action, of whatever sort, within the Universe as an ordered living structure, an organism. They also tell of the vast evolutionary scheme, one of 'ever-becoming', leading toward an ultimate state of perfection, of man's relationship to the whole, and of his essential and central role in this stupendous progression.
It is the first of these two aspects which relates specifically to man's spiritual 'intuitions'. As long as they have to remain mere intuitions or 'ideas', i.e. before they are quickened and are known in experience, and have thereby become knowledge, Theosophy justifies them.
Theosophy presents us with the idea (to begin with) of man's own inner, divine, immortal nature, his Ego, and how he may obtain an awareness of It, and eventually a conscious union with It. All this involves a proper knowledge of his personal nature and how he may bring it progressively under the control of the Ego. This is something that each individual person must learn and then do for himself; no-one else, Master or otherwise, can do it for him. This is the Law and, obviously, it is perfectly just.
How about God? Can 'He' or any representative of his redeem us or help us along the long road to the ultimate state of human development? It seems not. Here is an extract from The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett regarding the nature of 'God':
This extract relates directly to ideas - "beliefs based on blind faith and authority". It compels attention. Maybe it frightens us but if we are prepared to open our minds and see its truth we are set free: we can raise our eyes and look at new vistas, new horizons. We are free, whereas we were prisoners, in prisons of our own making - our ideas! But in accepting that 'God' is only an idea, a notion, we must accept that we cannot look to it for our salvation: that is in our own hands. This is a responsibility we must accept.
Another usage of conventional religions is prayer - usually supplicatory - in which God is addressed for help, relief from distress or some other blessing. Now we need some courage; if God is only an idea, to what are we praying? This is another dilemma which must be faced. What has Theosophy - or rather H.P.B. - to tell us? The following extract from The Key to Theosophy (p 66) not only tells us about prayer but also introduces many other vital truths.
All this is a far cry from our conventional religious notions and practices, especially those of our institutions which claim, and have us believe, that God has a special interest in us and particularly the sect or denomination (if any) to which we happen to belong.
This explanation of the theosophical or occult view of prayer depends on the important teaching about the two aspects of the nature of man, the personal and the divine. Theosophy as Religion involves the acceptance of the idea of these two aspects, then the practices which lead to their reconciliation, until a permanent conscious union between them, or identity is achieved. This always has been, is and will be the aim of true religion, having its foundation in the very nature of not only those two aspects of ourselves but also the identity of the self of each man with the cosmic SELF, the ultimate Unity, the ONE LIFE.
Ethics and morality have always been the province of the more advanced religions, as opposed to the appeasement of 'God' or gods by sacrifices and elaborate supplicatory, maybe flattering ceremonial - some of which may have a strong sexual element - of the more primitive ones.
There is, however, a very positive statement in The Secret Doctrine clearly stating the position of Theosophy vis-a-vis the major world religions:
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 materialized.
The Eastern religions, including Buddhism, and Christianity, and the other religions of the West, demand an ethical life. In the case of Buddhism, this is to satisfy Karma and achieve Nirvana; in Christianity it is to attain eventual salvation. The Masters directly concerned with the creation of the Theosophical Society and the promulgation of Theosophy had an affinity with Buddhism, recognizing the Lord Buddha as the codifier and great exponent of their Esoteric System .
In the connection between ethics and Buddhism H.P.B. was asked [The Key to Theosophy p 14]:
These ethics are epitomized in the Five Precepts - of which the Judaic Ten Commandments are a reflection - and the Noble Eightfold Path of exoteric Buddhism. More advanced guidance is given us in such books as The Voice of the Silence and the Baghavad Gita, and for practical help H.P.B.'s inspired and priceless Meditation Diagram.
It is interesting to note here phrases from the Maha Chohan's 1881 message [see Jinarajadasa's first series of Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom link]:
Another passage reads:
Reading about Theosophy as religion, and being mindful of all the ideas propounded above, there is no doubt that Theosophy was meant to be the background knowledge and practical teaching by which, in promoting it, the Theosophical Society would have become "the cornerstone of future religions". There is also no doubt that these teachings were to be the real religion, the Wisdom Religion of ancient days revived, which would transcend all the current world's religions with their disastrous man-made differences of dogma and belief. Unity, as a grand concept, was the intended ideal, embracing the common spiritual origin of everything and everybody. It must be remembered also that the theosophical concept is based on law. This is the natural dynamic, the ordered process whereby the universe is maintained in a state of balance or equilibrium. This law being universal must also apply, in the short and long term, to each individual man and each of his many successive lives, each being the causative antecedent to the one following.
The keynote of this transcendent religion is the long journey of human perfectibility. One effect of this prospect on our lives is that each individual must realize that he has to tread the long path for himself. Whatever is to be achieved along that path must be by his own efforts. There can be neither any outside help nor any vicarious atonement for his 'sins'. The efforts we make must result in the growth of what we call character, with all that that includes, and of our self-reliance.
The primary work of the Theosophical Society is to promulgate the ideas upon which future religion will be founded. As the Maha Chohan warned, however, such ideas must be inculcated slowly and necessarily they have to be graded to meet the various stages of man's spiritual development.
Whereas obviously there could not be any 'priests' as such, i.e. men (or women) ordained by God to minister to us, there would have to be teachers whose responsibility would be to help those less knowledgeable of man's make-up and his long spiritual journey. Such teachers would of necessity also have themselves to be acquainted with the knowledge of the grand scheme of cosmic evolution and man's part in it, not only from a physical but also from an 'occult' point of view, as taught in the Master-inspired theosophical literature. Equally necessarily they would have to have practised what they taught. Only their own experience could validate their words, giving them proper authority.
The highest form of teaching is by example. Humanity desperately needs such example: it needs at least a few men and women who have travelled further along the road of perfectibility than the rest of us to help and inspire us. But where are they? The inculcation of theosophical ideas may take generations to be effective but such examples, if we are worthy, may incarnate among us. In the meantime we have the authentic literature, if only we will discover and heed it, to instruct and inspire us. Letting it be known that such a thing as Theosophy exists and dissemination of authentic literature is the immediate work of the Theosophical Society.
In this enterprise we can help and inspire each other, particularly in groups. The specific meeting places now for religious instruction are the churches, temples, mosques etc., but therein little time is devoted to spiritual instruction and much to ritual and ceremonial. It is envisaged that groups for the dissemination and study of Theosophy would meet anywhere and would be smaller and more intimate than church or temple congregations. In such groups the more inspired scriptures and books of guidance which are consciousness-raising and of which there are a number of reliable ones, would be the subjects for study. Much of the exoteric scriptures, used largely for the justification of dogma, the fulfilment of prophesy, special nation treatment by Deity, etc., would form no part of this study. No group of men, according to theosophical teaching, is special, as is claimed by some. There are no distinctions, in truly spiritual religion, of religion or race, caste or class, or sex.
Regarding common, current religious practices, H.P.B. had the following to say:
The promulgation and acceptance of the teachings of 'the true doctrine' will inevitably be slow but eventually they must and will leaven thought, then affect behaviour, so enriching the quality of life and our human society. The effects will surely manifest as a willingness between men to co-operate rather than to compete; to be helpful rather than hurtful (in any way); as a proper regard for others, with kindliness and caring; as a sense of social duty such that even the idea of lying or fraud or cheating or stealing would be unthinkable. The practice of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path would become important. We would learn by experience the effects of practising each step on that Path which in itself is virtually a complete code of ethics.
The value of all life, particularly that of mankind, would be enhanced. Things which constitute mere material wealth would be of less account. In a co-operative society our attitudes towards each other would change radically. Fear would be eradicated, confidence established.
As the attitudes of people changed, so their will to live rightly would develop. Political systems, as such, would becomes less and less relevant. The need for them would become increasingly less significant as men learned to behave caringly towards each other.
As to what is truly religious, the teaching is that the very essence of all existing things is spiritual, it is divine. Man himself not only springs from this divine origin but may eventually manifest something of it in life by his speech and actions. Noble thoughts, deeds and aspirations would directly spring from it. Altruism, honesty and compassion are its hallmarks.
The ramifications of all that has been said above are many and extensive: a lengthy exposition would be needed to enumerate and elaborate on them. In the Mahachohan's message he states quite clearly that the salvation of mankind is in the promulgation of these ideas. It is quite evident that this promulgation is in our own hands, and particularly so in the case of the members of the Theosophical Society. A relevant extract from his message is:
The letter finishes with the following:
As to who shall do this, the charge is laid squarely on the members of the Theosophical Society. From the same letter is:
There are very many only too obvious erroneous impressions of Theosophy abroad. Many of them are being disseminated purposely to protect the entrenched institutions who have for hundreds of years promoted ideas, doctrines, etc., which do not stand the light of truth. Changing the opinions of the masses of people who for generations have been brought up in these beliefs can be no easy or short-term task. Members who would disseminate the gospel of 'truth' have to be prepared for opposition and ridicule as indeed H.P.B. was, and to persevere. It will need generations of Theosophists to make a serious impact on the world, but in the end the result will be worth any sacrifices we are called upon to make.