The Writings of Annie Besant
Materialism Undermined by Science
A Lecture delivered in 1895 in Calcutta
It is now fourteen months, my Brothers, since last I stood amongst you when I
acquaintance of, as I may say, the
that there may be found in her laws and in her religious thoughts. Leaving your
capita city I travelled northwards and westwards and visited several parts of
being born; and from that far-off distant Isle, near to the South Pole, come
back once more to the Motherland amongst you again to bring you once more a
message of the Eternal Verities of Spirituality, to speak amongst you once again
the Eternal Truths which from ancient times have come down.
For whether it be in India or Europe or Australia there is one mighty Spiritual Truth to be proclaimed, the one thing needed for the soul of man, and that is the knowledge of its wanderings after the Spirit, the knowledge of the Will of the Supreme. And whether in the lands of the West and South or whether under the fire of the tropical sun man is still demanding spiritual knowledge, is still struggling after spiritual life, still hoping for the same spiritual unity. To whatever
land we may go, through whatever country we may pass, we have still Humanity as "the great orphan" crying for the Spirit, striving after Light, after spiritual
unity, striving to find in the many esoteric religions the one Spiritual Truth
which alone can satisfy the soul. And if I come back to you here and take up
again the message which in this land has clothed itself in the ancient forms of
religion from ancient times, it is not because
where human souls need it, it is not because
spirit of man is crying out for the Light, but it is because in this land there
is more hope of a spiritual revival, and if a spiritual revival here there
maybe, then it will pour outwards to all the four corners of the world. For
spirituality is more easily awakened
The spiritual heart here is only sleeping, whereas in some other lands it has scarcely yet come to the birth; for you must remember that in this land is the birthplace of every religion, and that from India, outwards, religions have made their way.
it is that the soul of our mother
of the world, and therefore it is that the Materialism of India is so fatal. For
it is here alone that lies the hope that man has of looking for spiritual life:
for, in truth, unless the life of the Spirit come in this land, by reviving
here, then the hope is baseless that spirituality is to spread over the world.
And I may say to you, ere glancing for a moment over the subjects with which I
am to deal, upon this visit, that in travelling through the length and breadth
people: that in the South of India you have more pronounced and outward
orthodoxy, you have the more defined observances of ancient ceremonies and
ancient rites, that on the surface of the people, as it were, you see more of
the outer signs of Hinduism and more exactitude in the discharge of the various
That is a characteristic of the Southern people; that is a marked attribute amongst their various communities. Far away in the Punjab, there you may find certain traits of manhood, of strength, of courage, which if they shall rise to the Spirit surely would give us great help, would give us an enormous reinforcement; for that race would move with force and energy, only perhaps slow to take action. In Bengal there is, as I have noticed, much outward sign of western influence, much of the surface of the people taking up western thought and western customs; but in the heart of Bengal there still remain, more than elsewhere, gleams of the ancient spirituality, so that, just as in spiritual matters India is the heart of the world, so is Bengal the heart of India and may save India as a whole for all Humanity. And therefore in speaking to you in the ten days which lie before me, I have chosen subject after subject which should all point to the one object--and that is the revival of spirituality and the spread of the ancient Hindu religion in the hearts of its children, who are bound to it by ancestral ties.
you cannot revive spiritually in
life, is still the most ancient religion the world has ever known, sublime in
its Philosophy and magnificent in its Literature. So that if this shall again
become a living thing, India shall herself live; and with the revival all the
sleeping truths of other religions shall look again towards their Indian mother,
and make her once again the spiritual teacher of the world.
And now I am going to speak to you upon materialism; I am not going to deal now with a definite religious question, with definite religious teachings, with
mighty doctrines in Philosophy, in Spiritual knowledge, which later on I shall
hope to unfold before you. There is one thing that is eating the heart out of
India, and that is modern materialism. There is one thing which is poisoning the
mind of India, and that is the kind of science which is the teacher of
materialism and works against Spirituality in the mind. How should I be able to
tell you of the moral regeneration of India unless first I can strike at that
which is piercing her heart and sucking out her very lifeblood. So--as I have
been trained in the science of the West, trained in the knowledge of the
physical Universe which is so much used to make men believe that nothing but the physical remains--I take for my first subject this undermining of materialism by science, and I attack it with the weapons that were once used to build it up.
Now it is fair to ask in the beginning why it is that religion and science
should appear to be in opposition. Why is it that science should seem to play
into the hands of materialism? Why is it that as science has advanced, Religion
has found itself pressed backward and backward so that men begin to make excuses for spiritual truths and talk apologetically of religion? Why is it that men
advocating spiritual truth are afraid of being called superstitious? Let us see
whether there is no explanation why science at the outset should help
materialism and the reason also why, as science has advanced, it begins to
undermine the same materialism and to destroy that which it has helped to
You may remember Bacon, a great philosopher of the 17th Century,
speaking on this very point used the following phrase:--that a little learning
inclineth men to atheism, but deeper knowledge brings them back to religion. It
is a true statement. Look for a moment at religion and science, and you will see
why that should be the fact, and why one should be against the other. A man who is a spiritual man--a religious teacher--regards the universe from the
standpoint of the Spirit from which everything is seen as coming from the One.
When he stands, as it were, in the centre, and he looks from the centre to the
circumference, he stands at the point whence the force proceeds, and he judges
of the force from that point of radiation and he sees it as one in its
multitudinous workings, and knows the force is One; he sees it in its many
divergencies, and he recognises it as one and the same thing throughout.
Standing in the centre, in the Spirit, and looking outwards to the universe, he
judges everything from the standpoint of the Divine Unity and sees every
separate phenomenon, not as separate from the One but as the external expression of the one and the only Life. But science looks at the thing from the surface.
It goes to the circumference of the universe and it sees a multiplicity of
phenomena. It studies these separated things and studies them one by one. It
takes up a manifestation and judges it; it judges it apart; it looks at the
many, not at the One; it looks at the diversity, not at the Unity, and sees
everything from outside and not from within: it sees the external difference and
the superficial portion while it sees not the One from which every thing
proceeds. You may imagine, to take a figure, that you stand where there is a
white light--say an electric light sending out rays from a single point; imagine
three tubes going out from this centre and rays of light travelling down each
and passing through a glass of a different colour set in each tube; if you look
from the point where the electric light is you would see the white light
striking outward as a light which was one; but if you went to the far end of the
tubes you would there see that the light was of three different colours, as red
and blue and yellow, appearing as if the light was of three kinds not one,
because in their separation unity would be entirely lost. See how that works in
the Universe. You have your three great gunas or attributes through which, as it
were, the light comes as through three different glasses, and the one Divine
Spirit comes down into manifestation; and it is not only the three gunas that
you have but these intermingling one with another, and breaking in a thousand
Then how great must be the differences at the circumference! But how it would lessen the difficulty if men could only see the processes, and know how those results were brought about; if they went further, and if travelling onward they found the divergences greatly diminish, see then how thus going forward, they may come, as it were, near to the one, and reconciliation between Religion and Science may arise. Religion shows everything from the point of the Spirit and proclaims the unity. Scientists show everything from the point of view of diversity and proclaim that, as if in opposition, to the world. But Plato says of the man who can discern the one in the many, that that man he
regards as a God; the work of the true spiritual teacher is to show the one
under the multiplicity, to make man see the fact of unity underneath diversity,
and as science goes forward she also may be used once more to help us, because in passing out of the physical into the super-physical and mental, she is going nearer to Unity.
And now let me turn to my science and give you the proofs of this. First let me
refer you, though I need not dwell upon the point, to the remarkable position
taken by Huxley in his latest writings, which were new when I was with you last
year, but which remain unchanged, uncontradicted, as the latest proclamation of
the great teacher of Agnosticism as the latest proclamation of its exponent in
European Science. Two great points he made, or rather three. First--and I only
mention these briefly, because I dealt with them last year--first he pointed out
that the evolution of virtue in man was directly in conflict with the evolution
of the physical world: that when man evolved compassion, and tenderness and
gentleness and self-sacrifice, when he learnt to use his strength for service
instead of self-assertion--he was flying right in the face of the laws by which
progress had been made in the physical Universe. He was following the law of
self-sacrifice as against the law of self-assertion. Why is it that man can thus
set himself against the cosmos? It is because he is approaching the spiritual
region; it is because he has begun to develop the essential nature of the
divinity itself: for the life of God is in giving and not in taking: the life of
God is in pouring out and not in grasping; and as man feels the life of the
Spirit in him against the life of the animal, he grows Divinely strong. And when
you find men of science admitting that the evolution of virtue is by the law of
self-sacrifice, you may perhaps begin to admit the possibilities of what is said
in some of the sacred scriptures, that Creation always begins with Sacrifice.
You may remember that--I am quoting to you, leaving out only the first great
word--"the dawn is the head of the sacrificial horse, of the horse which arose
out of the water, the water which the commentary says represents Paramatma."
All creation is Sacrifice. The source or dawn is the sacrifice, and everywhere the
soul that would develop must live a life of sacrifice, because as the Upanishad
says to you, a sacrifice of the Godhead was made in order that the world might
exist. Sacrifice is the first condition in order that the Universe may be, and
that man might be evolved to be one with Himself.
second point made by Huxley seems taken from the sacred books of
pervades the whole. Man can set himself against the external world, for "Thou
art Brahman," and when that is realised by man all else becomes subject to his
will. And the third belief that Huxley has thought fit to declare is that the
working of consciousness in the higher cannot be understood by the lower.
There is nothing against the analogy of nature in supposing that there are grades of intelligence rising above men. There may be other intelligences higher and
higher and higher, reaching further and further far above the noblest
intelligence of man. And there is nothing, he says, to make it impossible that
there should be in the universe, above these grades--a Single Intelligence. But
what is that? Nothing but what has been proclaimed in the Scriptures, Isvar, the
Lord, the Logos, the Word of which all things were made. So that you may see
how, on these lines, science in the mouth of one of its greatest teachers is
Now let me go a little further. Let us see, not from the mouth of the teacher,
but from the facts themselves, how changes are going on. Physical facts are
being discovered which show that underneath the material mind must be at work.
Underlying the physical, intelligence must be active; .underlying a particle of
what was once called dead matter, a metal, a crystal or a stone, there is a
moving life--there is a ruling intelligence. First let me say--and the force of
the argument may excuse repetition of it--that if you take a crystal, you find
it grow along geometrical lines, with absolute definiteness of angles, as though
a compass were used to trace it, and these lines make geometrical figures. So
that Plato's phrase "God geometrises" is seen to be true even in the animal
Then again when from the mineral you go to the vegetable where life is
more active, where there seems to be less regularity, where there seems at first
less of order, you will find in reality that even in its multiplicity there is
order, that in the vegetable as well there is the same immutable law. If you
take the branch of a tree, you may study the way the leaves are set, and you
will find every leaf in a definite place, both as regards the leaves lower down
and higher up. So that the leaves of the tree are developed on a geometrical
plan. More than that. Since I last stood here to speak to you, a series of
investigations has been made into the way that metals behave under exercise.
Every engineer and other employer of machinery has noticed that when metal is
used, where there are bars and wheels and other parts making up the machine,
that with the use of the machine, what is called "fatigue" occurs. The metal
gets tired. But what does this mean? It has been observed that, after a certain
amount of exercise, the machine will not work well. It works like a tired horse
or a tired man; it stumbles and cannot carry on the work. What shall be done?
Let it rest.
It does not want improvement, as every part is perfect; it does not
want repair--there is nothing in it which is broken; it only needs to rest; and
if it is allowed to rest it recovers from its fatigue, without a single thing
being done to it, and it goes on to work as well as ever, showing that rest has
given back its energies and that, just as a tired animal reposes, so also the
"dead" metal may repose. This shows that even in a metal there is life--for a
dead thing cannot get tired, a dead thing cannot lose its energies, a dead thing
cannot be restored by rest. These are all signs of a living body; where there is
fatigue and recovery of energies by rest, there is life existing, however hidden
it may be under the form which conceals it from our eyes.
And now for a moment turn to Chemistry. I took first that point of the metals because it is a point which on thinking over you will find exceedingly plain and intelligible. But turn now to Chemistry. One great argument which materialists used to take from Chemistry was this: that as advances were made in what was called organic Chemistry, or the Chemistry of living things, it was shown that the separation made between organic and inorganic Chemistry was artificial. As a matter of fact, they said there was no fundamental difference and both organic and inorganic Chemistry were on the same lines; therefore they thought that the
introduction of life as a thing separate and apart from chemical agencies must
be given up. That argument was very much strengthened by chemists in the
laboratory making certain things which before had been found only as products of vegetables and animals and which had been regarded therefore as the outcome of living energy.
These things were said to be things which could only be produced by living organisations. During the present century, however, a large number of
these bodies have been made by chemists, and they have succeeded here in
breaking down the barriers between the organic and the inorganic; and the result
was that at once it was said, "you see life is only, after all, the result of
chemical energy, and not an outcome from the supreme source, but only something in connection with the chemical energy; you were under a mistake in supposing those things were always found as products of living things, and therefore there is not needed to explain them a source of life from which all living things proceeded. See how the chemist has proved you out of court; see how he has made that which you said could only come from life." Thus apparently was one of the arguments knocked down which seemed to prove the life of the world as coming from the life which was Eternal and Supreme.
But Chemistry, in the course of these very investigations, going along the lines called organic, has given us an argument stronger than the one attacked. It places within our reach arguments far stronger, far more potent than the one which it destroyed; for it shows that in the organic the atom is not only, as I told you last year, formed by the action of electrical currents out of primary matter, but it shows further that the atom here progresses; that the atom in the animal kingdom is not at all the same as the atom of the vegetable in its combining power. It shows that the change is not a change of material attributes, but a change of inner life, of internal differentiations--the atom changes within itself, as all living things do; for one of the great signs of life used to be said to be this power of
adaptation from within.
Take an atom in the mineral kingdom such as carbon. All its combinations are simple, all its combinations are one by one. This fourfold atom can join with others in definite and simple combinations, but when it passes forward, having gone through the mineral kingdom, then by an inner evolution, it changes its combining power and unites with itself to form a number of compounds, forming closed rings, so as to make complicated combinations never found in the mineral kingdom.
Taking the old story of evolution as laid down thousands of years ago, not in the modern but in the ancient forms, we learn that this atom is part of the Universal life, that it is not dead matter but a living thing, that atoms are minute lives which go to build up external forms. We are able now to bring arguments from Chemistry to show that there is atomic evolution in the universe, that the progress of life which we see around us is no dream of the ancient Rishis but a reality. The scientists look only at the form and not at the inner life; but as you study the atom, you realise that this increased power of combination means evolving life within it. Not only is that seen, but it is also now admitted that life cannot be regarded as an outcome of chemical agency. It is admitted that life shows certain specific energies which differentiate it from electrical and chemical
affinities, and you may get the ,phenomena of living things among the energies
which science is unable to trace to their source. Once it was thought that life
might be explained as the outcome of chemical and electrical agencies, but now
it is admitted to be something more. Science now admits that although they are
correlated with the life, they are not the life itself, and although they
accompany the phenomena they cannot be regarded as their sources. So that from the chemistry which was the greatest hope of the materialist, we may now obtain arguments for its undermining.
Pass from that to electricity and see how here, in the latest discoveries, are
arguments that may help our works. It is not only that science has proved that
whenever thought is present, electricity is also present, interesting as that
is, as showing the close relationship between them; but we are also told that
there may be a development of an organ in the brain of man which will take
cognizance of electric vibration directly and not indirectly. Let me show you
what I mean. You see the light here because the light makes vibrations, and
these vibrations strike on the organ we call the eye. The eye is so put together
in its minute parts, that these vibrate in response to the vibrations of the
ether; so that whenever these vibrations are present, certain particles in the
eye vibrate in response and give to us the sensation which we call light. Now
these vibrations are within narrow limits; there are vibrations in the ether
wider and narrower in wave-length than those which we call light, and to these
our eyes do not answer. Therefore if they alone are present, we are in darkness;
we cannot see. So again suppose we had developed the organ which is necessary to respond to the electric vibration, while we had not the organ of sight.
Then this room would be dark to us, though filled with the vibrations we now call light. Then the consciousness could not perceive the light. But if we had
developed instead of the eye another class of organs which answered to the
electric vibrations, and suppose a large electric machine were fixed at one end
of the hall, and a strong electric current sent through the hall, we should be
able to perceive because the organ in us would vibrate in answer to the electric
current, and the current would reach our consciousness through this organ. The
consciousness is helpless without an organ that receives from without, and only
the body can receive and transfer vibrations to the inner intelligence. That has
been very clearly pointed out, and to take a striking illustration used by
Professor Crookes: suppose we had no eyes to see the light, and suppose we had an inner organ which answered to electricity. This air would be opaque and we could not see through it, while a silver wire going through the air would be
transparent, would be like a tube going through a solid mass. Though you would
be able to perceive along the silver wire, because silver is a good conductor of
electricity,you would perceive the air as a solid round the silver which would
look like a hole.
Do you see how rational the illusory theory can become when you learn a little more science? Do you see how matter is no longer the thing which it was, a solid material, but by a change in the organ of consciousness, what is solid today may be permeable to-morrow? And thus the idea is largely right that regards matter as an illusion; for what we call matter is only a generalisation of the impressions received by consciousness by way of the senses. It is the translation in consciousness of the unknown something which works upon us. In fact, what we call matter is but a reflection in the consciousness of an aspect of the Supreme Unknowable Unity, just as the Spirit is the reflection of the other aspect of the same Unknowable Unity.
Thus science is bringing us back to this part of the ancient teachings, and if a materialist comes to you and says that matter cannot pass from matter, just throw into his mind for him to think over, some of these later facts.
Pass I from that to another closely allied point--that of thought-transference.
Thought-transference is now being acknowledged, though for a long time science was very doubtful as to its acceptance, and if you spoke to a man about it he
most likely regarded you as a crank, or even called you a fraud, for it was
easier to call you a fraud than to admit that he was ignorant. There are men for
whom it is impossible to say "I do not know," but anybody can say "you are a
fraud." The ignorant who are not able to understand, people who are most
self-opinionated nearly always call out "fraud," when confronted with the
unintelligible. Look now at thought-transference. Thought is a form-producing
force; when Brahma thought, worlds appeared. In the ancient books it was always taken to be granted that action is an effect of the mind. But it has been asked contemptuously of the writers of these books, what did they know about modern science? What did they know compared to our advancement? For we are supposed to know everything nearly in this 19th century! Yet, after all, the old writers have become justified by the facts. The old teachers have been justified by the later investigations.
some of the best of the younger scientists in
Oliver Lodge speaking two years ago, said he was sure of thought-transference,
but it was alleged that matter might be moved by the action of the will without
material contact, and of that he was not yet convinced. But within the last few
months Mr. Lodge has himself carried on a number of experiments which have
convinced him, he says, beyond the possibility of doubt, that an article may be
moved from one place to another without physical contact at all; that bodies can
be moved or suspended in the air without the means of physical support, and that he himself has taken part in experiments which have been carefully arranged by himself and other scientific men and they have proved that it is possible and it
may be done over and over again. The experiments carried on included therein the taking of small articles and without physical contact passing them from one part of a room to another.
The conditions under which these things were done were very rigid. They were carried on in a small island where there were no persons living except the lighthouse-keeper and his family. It was a very little island, a mere rock. Mr. Lodge and two or three others got the owner's consent to make their experiments there. They brought with them what is called a medium who
belonged to the South of Europe, who could not talk the language of the
inhabitants of the island, so that she could not communicate even with the
family on the island, she being an absolute stranger never having been there
before. They took her into a room with themselves only, with locked door, and
there they performed the experiments in which these phenomena were produced.
They kept the reporter outside in the balcony so, that he could not be within
sight of what was occurring. The reporter was put outside with a closed shutter
between him and the people in the room. He was to write down what he heard, but he was not able to see what happened.
Mr. Lodge said he was himself absolutely convinced; he said he could not as yet explain it, but he thought it possible there might be a kind of expansion of vital energies by which a person, under certain conditions, could affect a body outside his physical reach. Just as one body can touch another by the exercise of physical energies, so can it draw others towards it. But he is not yet prepared to say how that energy is exercised. That this was, he knows; how it was, he has not yet satisfied himself. But if he were to read some of the ancient books, he could easily find out. He might find that a man does not consist only of what is called the food-sheath or our physical body, but that men have other sheaths in which consciousness may work, without the limitations which are attached to the
physical body. When it is working within there, it can also exercise its power,
just as much as it can in the physical body, and may lift an object from one
place to another by working with a law of nature in which other forces are
concerned. The sheath used is what the Theosophists speak of as the "astral"
body which can be utilised for the production of these phenomena, and though it was said to be a fraud when Madame Blavatsky brought an article from one side of a room to another, yet nearly four years after her death you have Mr. Lodge going into the subject, and asserting after a scientifically rigid repetition of
the facts that the thing could be done, thus justifying a statement as possible
which had been hastily dismissed as a fraud.
I might speak of many other cases of these latest investigations, and show you
how they are undermining the materialistic idea. I may turn to Hypnotism, and
remind you that last year I remarked that it was becoming a public danger--the
power of influencing another, the power recognised by science, which one man had of imposing his thoughts on another. I saw that before long nations would be face to face with crimes which they would not know how to deal with. I said to you that unless the exercise of these powers were very carefully guarded, so
that men who were unworthy should not be allowed to grasp these hidden powers of nature, there would be great danger to society in making safe particular classes of crime.
Since last year that prophecy of mine has proved itself true, and in certain cases both in France and the United States of America crimes were found to have been worked by the hypnotiser, and the courts have not been able to deal
with them, and verdicts of acquittal have been given on the ground that the
criminals were not responsible for their actions, that being thrown into the
hypnotised state, they could not justly be called to account by the law for the
crime which they had committed. So that you have this result justifying the
ancient practice of the East in withholding dangerous knowledge of occult
forces, and showing that society in the West is face to face with the peril of
men who commit crimes but who cannot be held responsible for them, because
committing them under the influence of those who suggest them.
What is to be the outcome of these arguments? What is to be the outcome of these later investigations in Chemistry, electricity, thought-transference, Hypnotism, the moving of bodies and the like? To what are these new lines of investigation tending? They tend to show you that the old doctrine is true, that everything is the outcome of mind, that the Supreme Mind is, as it were, behind every phenomenon, that matter is regulated in conformity with the dictates of mind, that it is the truth that thought-forces take for in particular manifestations,
and so the Universe is only an expression of the Divine Will. And inasmuch as
the mind generates thoughts, and inasmuch as the Supreme and human minds are one in their essence, therefore the mind of man, in its higher manifestations shares in the powers of Supreme mind, and can control matter, can move matter, can model matter, shape matter, and make itself visible in the envelope of thought, and so communicate with other minds without any attempt to speak or hear at all.
So that you begin to understand that the saying of the Purana as to creation is
not a dream, but that it is from the Supreme Will that forms emanate and build
the Universe. And you may understand that this power of the Supreme is more
manifest in the power of the mind than in the powers of the body, and that true
activity is shown not in running about from place to place, held in the bonds of
physical facts, but in quiet thinking, in the use of the imagination and the
will. Therefore the Yogi sitting apart, with body absolutely still, with eyes
closed, and mouth not communicating with other men, if he be a Yogi indeed, a
Yogi in heart not only in dress, he has an inner life, a spiritual life, he may
do more than the man of action by his thoughts, by his meditations, by the
forces which are going out from him. On these more than on the work of
politicians may turn the life of the nation.
Nor is this work only for the Yogi. Every one of you is sending out thoughts
that, passing into the astral atmosphere, will take form, and thence affect the
lives of men and in their totality the nation's future. If only every one of you
would give one brief quarter of an hour's thought each morning to the future of
India, and send out earnest wishes for her welfare, hopes for her revival,
aspirations for her spiritual greatness, believe me you would make a force that
would raise the nation and would mould her future. Your thoughts would gather
together, modelling, as it were, an ideal India that should take shape in the
external world; your prayers would gather together and ascend to the Feet of
Mahadeva, whence would flow forth a regenerating energy that would manifest
itself in teachers, in leaders, in guides of the people, who could move the
hearts of men and unite them into one mighty Unity. Such is your power over the
future, such the service you may render India; for in thought is the power of
the Supreme, and it is man's because "Thou art Brahman."