The Writings of Annie Besant
a series of Lectures delivered in
I want to put before you clearly and plainly what Theosophy means, and what is the function of the Theosophical Society. For we notice very often, especially with regard to the Society, that there is a good deal of misconception touching it, and that people do not realise the object with which it exists, the work that it is intended to perform. It is very often looked upon as the expression of some new religion, as though people in becoming Theosophists must leave the religious community to which he or she may happen to belong. And so a profound misconception arises, and many people imagine that in some way or other it is hostile to the religion which they profess.
Now Theosophy, looked at historically or practically, belongs to all the religions of the world, and every religion has an equal claim to it, has an equal right to say that Theosophy exists within it. For Theosophy, as the name implies, the Divine Wisdom, the Wisdom of God, clearly cannot be appropriated by any body of people, by any Society, not even by the greatest of the religions of the world. It is a common property, as free to everyone as the sunlight and the air. No one can claim it as his, save by virtue of his common humanity; no one can deny it to his brother, save at the peril of destroying his own claim thereto. Now the meaning of this word, both historically and practically, the Wisdom, the Divine Wisdom, is a very definite and clear meaning; it asserts the possibility of the knowledge of God. That is the point that the student ought to grasp; this knowledge of God, not the belief in Him, not the faith in Him, not only vague idea concerning Him, but the knowledge of Him, is possible to man. That is the affirmation of Theosophy, that is its root-meaning and its essence.And we find, looking back historically, that this has been asserted in the various great religions of the world. They all claim that man can know, not only that man can believe.
Only in some of the more
modern faiths, in their own modern days, the knowledge has slipped into the
background, and the belief, the faith, looms very-large in the mind of the
believer. Go back as far as you will in the history of the past, and you will
find the most ancient of religions affirming this possibility of knowledge. In
divine science," was that which you will call "science" nowadays, the study of the external world. But it also included all that here we speak of as Literature, as Art, as Craft—everything, in fact, which the human brain can study and the human fingers can accomplish—the whole of that, in one grand generalisation, was called " Divine Wisdom," but it was the lower divine Wisdom, the inferior knowledge of God. Then, beside, or rather above that, came the Supreme Knowledge, the higher, the superior, that beyond which there was no knowledge, which was the crown of all. Now, that supreme knowledge is declared to be " the knowledge of Him by Whom all things are known "—a phrase indicating the Supreme Deity. It was that which was called the supreme knowledge, or, par excellence, the Divine Knowledge, and that old Hindu thought is exactly the same as you have indicated by the name Theosophy.
So, again, classical students may remember that among the Greeks and the early Christians there was what was called the Gnosis, the knowledge, the definite article pointing to that which, above all else, was to be regarded as knowledge or wisdom. And when you find among the Neo-Platonists this word Gnosis used, it always means, and is defined to mean, " the knowledge of God," and the "Gnostic" is "a man who knows God." So, again, among the early Christians. Take such a man as Origen. He uses the same word in exactly the same sense; for when Origen is declaring that the Church hasmedicine for the sinner, and that Christ is the Good Physician who heals the diseases of men, he goes on to say that the Church has also the Gnosis for the wise, and that you cannot build the Church out of sinners; you must build it out of Gnostics.
These are the men who
know, who have the power to help and to teach; and there can be no medicine for
the diseased, no upholder of the weak, unless, within the limits of the
religion, the Gnostic
is to be found. And so Origen lays immense stress on the Gnostic, and devotes page
after page to a description of him: what he is, what he thinks, what he does;
and to the mind of that great Christian teacher, the Gnostic was the strength
of the Church, the pillar, the buttress of the faith. And so, coming down through the centuries,
since the Christian time, you will find the word Gnostic used every now and again, but more often the
term " Theosophist" and " Theosophy
" ; for this term came into use in the later school, the Neo-Platonists,
and became the commonly accepted word for those who claimed this possibility of
knowledge, or even claimed to know.
And a phrase regarding this is to be found in the mystic Fourth Gospel, that of S.
John, where into the mouth of the Christ the words are put, that the "
knowledge of God is eternal life "— not the faith, nor the thought, but
the knowledge—again declaring the possibility of this "Gnosis. And the same idea is found along the line
of the Hermetic Science, or Hermetic Philosophy, partly derived from
The Hermetic philosopher also claimed to know, and claimed that in man was this divine faculty of knowledge, above the reason, higher than the intellect. And whenever, among the thoughtful and the learned, you find reference made to " faith," as where, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, it is said to be " the evidence of things not seen," the same idea comes out, and Faith, the real Faith, is only this intense conviction which grows out of the inner spiritual being of man, the Self, the Spirit, which justifies to the intellect, to the senses, that there is God, that God truly exists.
And this is so strongly felt in the East that no one there wants to argue about the existence of God; it is declared that that existence cannot be proved by argument. " Not by argument," it is written, " not by reasoning, not by thinking, can the Supreme Self be known." The only proof of Him is "the conviction in the Spirit, in the Self." And thus Theosophy, then, historically, as you see, always makes the affirmation that man can know; and after that supreme affirmation that God may be known, then there comes the secondary affirmation, implied really in that, and in the fact of man's identity of nature with the Supreme, that all things in the universe can be known— things visible and invisible, subtle and gross. That is, so to speak, a secondary affirmation, drawn out of the first; for clearly if in man resides the faculty to know God as God, then every manifestation of God may be known by the faculty which recognises the identity of the human Spirit with the Supreme Spirit that permeates the universe at large. So in dictionaries and in encyclopedias you will sometimes find Theosophy defined as the idea that God, and angels, and spirits, may hold direct communication with men; or sometimes, in the reverse form, that men can hold communication with spirits, and angels, and even with God Himself; and although that definition be not the best that can be given, it has its own truth, for that is the result of the knowledge of God, the inevitable outcome of it, the manifestation of it. The man who knows God, and knows all things in Him, is evidently able to communicate with any form of living being, to come into relation with anything in the universe of which the One Life is God.
In modern days, and among scientific people, the affirmation which is the reverse of this became at one time popular, widely accepted — not Gnostic but " Agnostic," " without the Gnosis " ; that was the position taken up by Huxley and by many men of his own time of the same school of thought. He chose the name because of its precise signification; he was far too scientific a man to crudely deny, far too scientific to be willing to speak positively of that of which he knew nothing; and so, instead of taking up the position that there is nothing beyond man, and man's reason, and man's senses, he took up the position that man was without possibility of knowledge of what there might be, that his only means of knowledge were the senses for the material universe, the reason for the world of thought.
Man, by his reason, could conquer everything in the realm of thought, might become1" mighty in intellect, and hold as his own domain everything that the intellect could grasp at its highest point of growth, its highest possibility of attainment. That splendid avenue of progress Huxley, and men like Huxley, placed before humanity as the road along which it might hope to walk, full of the certainty of ultimate achievement. But outside that, beyond the reason in the world of thought and the senses in the material world, Huxley, and those who thought like him, declared that man was unable to pierce—hence " Agnostic," " without the Gnosis," without the possibility of plunging deeply into the ocean of Being, for there the intellect had no plummet. Such, according to science at one* time, was man; and whatever man might hope for, whatever man might strive for, on, as it were, the portal of the spiritual universe was written the legend " without knowledge."
Thither man might not hope to penetrate, thither man's faculties might never hope to soar; for when you have defined man as a reasoning being, you have given the highest definition that science was able to accept, and across the spiritual nature was written : " imagination, dream, and phantasy."
And yet there is much in ordinary human history which shows that man is something more than intellect, as clearly as it shows that the intellect is greater than the senses; for every statesman knows that he has to reckon with what is sometimes called "the religious instinct" in man, and that however coldly philosophers may reason, however sternly science may speak, there is in man some upwelling power which refuses to take the agnosticism of the intellect, as it refuses to accept the positivism of the senses ;*and with that every ruler of men has to deal, with that every statesman has to reckon. There is something* in man which from time to time wells up with irresistible power, sweeping away every limit which intellect or senses may strive to put in its path—the religious instinct.
And even to takethat term, that name, even that is to join on this part of man's nature to a part of nature universal, which bears testimony in every time, and in every place, that to every instinct in the living creature there is some answer in the nature outside itself. There is no instinct known in plant, in animal, in man,
to which nature does not answer; nature, which has woven the demand into the texture of the living creature, has always the supply ready to meet the demand; and strange indeed it would be, well-nigh incredible, if the profoundest instinct of all in nature's highest product on the physical plane, if that ineradicable instinct, that seeking after God and that thirst for the Supreme, were the one and only instinct in nature for which there is no answer in the depths and the heights around us. And it is not so.
That argument is strengthened and buttressed by an appeal to experience; for you cannot, in dealing with human experience and the testimony of the human consciousness, leave entirely out of court, silenced, as though it were not relevant, the continual testimony of all religions to the existence of the spiritual nature in man. The spiritual consciousness proves itself quite as definitely as the intellectual or the sensuous consciousness proves itself—by the experience of the individual, alike in every religion as in every century in which humanity has lived, has thought, has suffered, has rejoiced". The religious, the spiritual nature, is that which is the strongest in man, not the weakest; that which breaks down the barriers of the intellect, and crushes into silence the imperious demands of the senses; which changes the whole life as by a miracle, and turns the face of the man in a direction contrary to that in which he has been going all his life. Whether you take the facts of conversion, or whether you take the testimony of the saint, the prophet, the seer, they all speak with that voice of authority to which humanity instinctively bows down; and it was the mark of the spiritual man when it was said of Jesus, the Prophet: " He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." For where the spiritual man speaks, his appeal is made to the highest and the deepest part in every hearer that he addresses, and the answer that comes is an answer that brooks no denial and permits no questioning. It shows its own imperial nature, the highest and the dominant nature in the man, and where the Spirit once has spoken the intellect becomes obedient, and the senses begin to serve.
Now Theosophy, in declaring that this nature of man can know God, bases that statement on identity of nature. We can know—it is our continual experience— we can know that which we share, and nothing else. Only when you have appropriated for yourself something from the outside world can you know the similar things in the outside world. You can see because your eye has within it the ether of which the waves are light; you can hear because your ear has in it the ether and the air whose vibrations are sound; and so with everything else. Myriads of things exist outside you, and you are unconscious of them, because you have not yet appropriated to your own service that which is like unto them in outer nature.
And you can know God for exactly the same reason that you can know by sight or hearing—because you are part of God; you can know Him because you share His nature. " We are partakers of the Divine Nature," says the Christian teacher "Thou art That," declares the Hindu. The Sufi cries out that by love man and God are one, and know each other. And all the religions of the world in varied phrase announce the same splendid truth of man's Divinity.
It is on that that Theosophy founds its affirmation that the knowledge of God is possible to man; that the foundation, then, of Theosophy, that the essence of its message.And the value of it at the time when it was re-proclaimed to the world was that it was an affirmation in the face of a denial. Where Science began to cry " agnosticism," Theosophy came to cry out " gnosticism." At the very same time the two schools were born into the modern world, and the re-proclamation of Theosophy, the supreme knowledge, was the answer from the invisible worlds to the nescience of Science. It came at the right time, it came in the right form, as in a few moments we shall see; but the most important thing of all is that it came at the very moment when Science thought itself triumphant in its nescience.
This re-proclamation, then, of the most ancient of all truths, was the message of Theosophy to the modern world. And see how the world has changed since that was proclaimed ! It is hardly necessary now to make that affirmation, so universal has become the acceptance of it. It is almost difficult to look back to the year 1875, and realise how men were thinking and feeling then. I can remember it, because I was in it. The elder amongst you can remember it, for the same reason.
But for theyounger of you, who have begun to think and feel in the later times, when this thought was becoming common, you can scarcely realise the change in the intellectual atmosphere which has come about during these last two and-thirty years. Hardly worth while is it to proclaim it now, it is so commonplace. If now you say: " Man can know God," the answer is: " Of course he can." Thirty-two years ago it was: " Indeed he cannot." And that is to be seen everywhere, all
over the world, and not only among those people who were clinging blindly to a blind faith, desperately sticking to it as the only raft which remained for them to save them from being submerged in materialism. It is recognised now on all hands; literature is full of it; and it is not without significance that some months ago The Hibbert Journal —which has in it so much of the advanced thought of the day, for which bishops and archbishops and learned clerics write—it is not without significance that that journal drew its readers' attention to " the value of the God-idea in Hinduism." And the only value of it was this, for man : that man is God, and therefore can know God; and the writer pointed out that that was the only foundation on which, in modern days, an edifice that could not be shaken could be reared up for the Spirit in man.
That is the religion of the future, the religion of the Divine Self; that the common religion, the universal religion, of which all the religions that are living in the world will be recognised as branches, as* sects of one mighty religion, universal and supreme.
For just as now in Christianity you have many a sect and many a church, just as in Hinduism we find many sects and many schools, and as in every other great religion of the world at the present time there are divisions between the believers in the same religion, so shall it be—very likely by the end of this century—with all the religions of the world; there will be only one religion—the knowledge of God—and all religions sects under that one mighty and universal name.
And then, naturally, out of this knowledge there must spring a large number of other knowledges subservient to it, that which you hear so much about in Theosophical literature, of other worlds, the worlds beyond the physical, worlds that are still material, although the matter be of a finer, subtler kind; all that you read about the astral, and mental, and buddhic planes, and so on—all these lower knowledges find their places naturally, as growing out of the one supreme knowledge. And at once you will ask: " Why ?" If you are really divine, if your Self is the same Self of which the worlds are a partial expression, then it is not difficult to see that that Self in you, as it unfolds its divine powers, and shapes the matter which it appropriates in order to come in contact with all the different parts of the universe, that that Self, creating for itself bodies, will be able to know every material thing in the universe, just as you know the things of the physical plane through the physical body. For it is all on the same lines: that which enables you to know is not only body—that is the« medium between you and the physical world—but the Knower in you is that which enables you to know, the power of perception which is of consciousness, and not of body.
When consciousness vanishes, all the organs of consciousness are there, as perfect as ever, but the Knower has left them, and know-ledge disappears with him; and so, whether it be in a swoon, in a fainting fit, in sleep, or in death, the perfect instrument of the physical body becomes useless when the hand of the master workman drops it. The body is only his tool, whereby he contacts the things in a universe which is not himself; and the moment he leaves it, it is a mere heap of matter, doomed to decay, to destruction. But just as he has that body for knowledge here, so he has other bodies for knowledge everywhere, and in every world he can know, he who is the Knower, and every world is made up of objects of knowledge, which he can perceive, examine, and understand.
And the world into which you shall pass when you go through the portal of death, that is around you at every moment of your life here, and you only do not know it because your instrument of knowledge there is not yet perfected, and ready there to your hand; and the heavenly world into which you will pass out of the intermediate world next to this, that is around you now, and you only do not know it because your instrument of knowledge there has not yet been fashioned.
And so with worlds yet higher, knowledge of them is possible, because the Knower is yourself and is God, and you can create your instruments of knowledge according to your wisdom and your will.
Hence Theosophy includes the whole of this vast scheme or field of knowledge; and the whole of it is yours, yours to possess at your will. Hence Theosophy should be to you a proclamation of your own Divinity, with everything that flows therefrom; and all the knowledge that may be gathered, all the investigations that may be made, they are all part-t of this great scheme. And the reason why all the religions of the world teach the same, when you come to disentangle the essence of their teaching from the shape in which they put it, the reason that they all teach the same is that they are all giving you fragments of knowledge of the other worlds, and these worlds are all more real than the world in which you are; and they all teach the same fundamental truths, the same fundamental moral principles, the same religious doctrines, and use the same methods in order that men may come into touch with the other worlds. The sacraments do not belong to Christianity alone, as sometimes Christians think; every religion has its sacraments, some more numerous than others, but all have some. For what is a sacrament? It is the earthly, the physical representative of a real correspondence in nature; as the catechism of the Church of England phrases it: " An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." It is a true definition.
A sacrament is made up of the outer and inner, and you cannot do without either. The outer thing is correlated to the inner, and is a real means of coming into touch with the higher, and is not only a symbol, as some imagine.
The great churches and religions of the past always cling to that reality of the sacrament, and they do well. It is only in very modern times, and among a comparatively small number of Christian people, that the sacrament has become only a symbol, 'instead of a channel of living and divine power. And much is lost to the man who loses out of his religion the essential idea of the sacrament; for it is the link between the spiritual and the physical, the channel whereby the spiritual pours down into the physical vehicle.
Hence the value that all religions put upon sacraments, and their recognition of their reality, and their priceless service to mankind. And so with many other things in ceremonies and rites, common to all the different faiths—the use of musical sounds, a use which tunes the bodies so that the spiritual power may be able to manifest through them and by them. For just as in your orchestra you must tune the instruments to a single note, so must you tune your various bodies in order that harmoniously they may allow the spiritual force to come through from the higher to the lower plane. It is a real tuning, a real making of harmonious vibrations; and the difference between the vibrations that are harmonious and the vibrations that are discordant, from this point of view, is this : when all the bodies vibrate together, all the particles and their spaces correspond, so that you get solid particles, then spaces, and then solid particles, and spaces again, corresponding through all the bodies; whereas in the normal condition the bodies do not match in that way, and the spaces of one come against the solid parts of the other, and so you get a block.
When sounds are used, the mystical sounds called mantras in Hinduism, the effect of those is to change the bodies from this condition to that, and so the forces from without can come into the man, and the forces in him may flow out to others. That is the value of it. You are able to produce mechanically a result
which otherwise has to be produced by a tremendous exertion of the will; and the man of knowledge never uses more force than is necessary in order to bring about what he desires, and the Occultist —who is the wise man on many planes—he uses the easiest way always to gain his object. Hence the use of music, or mantras, in every faith. Pythagoras used music in order to prepare his disciples to receive his teachings.
The Greek and the
Even the songs of illiterate Christian bodies do have some effect upon them, in raising them to a higher level, although they possess little of the true quality of the mantra. In Theosophy you find all these things dealt with scientifically—a mass of knowledge, but all growing out of the original statement that man can know God.
Now it is clear that in all that, there is nothing which a man of any faith cannot accept, cannot study. I do not mean that he will accept everything that a Theo-sophist would say; but I mean that the knowledge is knowledge of a kind which he will be wise to study, and to appropriate so far as it recommends itself to his reason and his intuition. And that is all the man need do—study. All this knowledge is spread out for you freely: you can take it, if you will.
The Theosophical Society, which spreads it broadcast everywhere, claims in it no property, no proprietary rights, but gives it out freely everywhere. The books in which much of it is written are as free to the non-Theosophist as to the Theo-sophist. The results of Theosophical investigation are published freely that all who choose may read. Everything is done that can be done by the Society to make the whole thing common property ; and nothing gives the true Theo-sophist more delight than when he sees the Theosophical teachings coming out in some other garb which gives them a different name, but hands them on to those who might be frightened perhaps by the name " Theosophy." And so, when we find a clergyman scattering broadcast to his congregation Theosophical teaching as Christian, we say: " See, our work is bearing fruit"; and when we find the man who does not label himself " Theosophist" giving any of these truths to the world, we rejoice, because we see that our work is being done.
We have no desire to take the credit of it, nor to claim it as ours at all; it belongs to every man who is able to see it, quite as much as it does to anyone who may call himself " Theosophist." For the possession of truth comes of right to the man who can see the truth, and there is no partiality in the world of intellect or of Spirit. The only test for a man's fitness to receive is the ability to perceive; and the only claim he has to see by the light is the power of seeing.
And that, perhaps, may explain to you what some think strange in our Society—we have no dogmas. We do not shut out any man because he does not believe Theosophical teachings. A man may deny every one of them, save that of human brotherhood, and claim his place and his right within our ranks.
But his place and his right within our ranks are founded on the very truths that he denies; for if man could not know God, if there were no identity of nature in every man with God, then there would be no foundation for our reception of him, nor any reason for welcoming him as a brother. Because there is only one life, and one nature, therefore the man who denies is God, as is he who affirms. Therefore each has a right to come; only the one who affirms knows why he welcomes his brother, and the one who denies is ignorant, and knows not why he has a right within our ranks. But those of us who try to be Theosophists in reality, as well as in name, we understand why it is that we make him welcome, and it is based on this sane idea, that a man can see the truth best by studying it, and not by repeating formula that he does not understand. What is the use of putting a dogma before a man and saying: " You must repeat that before you can come into my Church " ?
If the man repeats it not understanding it, he is outside, no matter how much you bring him in ; and if he sees it, there is no need to make that as a portal to your fellowship. And we believe, we of the Theosophical Society, that just because the intellect can only do its best work in its own atmosphere of freedom, truth has the best chance of being seen when you do not make any conditions as to the right of investigation, as to the claim to seek. To us, truth is so supreme a thing that we do not desire to bind any man with conditions as to how, or where, or why, he shall seek it. These things, we say, we know are true; and because we know they are true, come amongst us, even though you do not believe them, and find out for yourself whether they be true or not. And the man is better worth having when he comes in an unbeliever, and wins to the knowledge of the truth, than is the facile believer who acknowledges everything and never gets a real grip upon truth at all.
We believe that truth is only found by seeking, and that the true bond is the love of truth, and the effort to find it; that that is a far more real bond than the repetition of a common creed. For the creed can be repeated by the lips, but the seeing of truth as true can only come from the intellect and the spirit, and to build on the intellect and the spirit is a firmer foundation than to build on the breath of the lips. Hence our Society has no dogmas. Not that it does not stand for any truths, as some people imagine. Its name marks out the truth for which it stands: it is the Theosophical Society ; and that shows its function and its place in the world—a Society that asserts the possibility of the knowledge of God; that is its proclamation, as we have seen, and all the other truths that grow out of that are amongst our teachings. The Society exists to spread the knowledge of those truths, and to popularise those teachings amongst mankind. " But," you may say, " if it be the fact that you throw out broadcast all your teachings, that you write them in books that every man can buy, what is, then, the good of being a member of the Theosophical Society ?
We should not have any more as members than we have as non-members." That is not quite true, but it may stand as true for the moment. Why should you come in ? For no reason at all, unless to you it is the greatest privilege to come in, and you desire to be among those who are the pioneers of the thought of the coming days. No reason at all: it is a privilege. We do not beg you to come in; we only say: " Come if you like to come, and share the glorious privilege that we possess; but if you would rather not, stay outside, and we will give you everything which we believe will be serviceable and useful to you."
The feeling that brings people into our Society is the feeling that makes the soldier spring forward to be amongst the pioneers when the army is going forth. There are some people so built that they like to go in front and face difficulties, so that other people may have an easier time, and walk along a path that has already been hewn out for them by hands stronger than their own.
That is the only reason why you should come in : no other. Do not come to " get" ; you will be disappointed if you do. You can " get" it outside. Come in to give, to work, to be enrolled amongst the servants of humanity who are working for the dawn of the day of a nobler knowledge, for the coming of the recognition of a spiritual brotherhood amongst men. Come in if you have the spirit of the pioneer within you, the spirit of the volunteer; if to you it is a delight to cut the way through the jungle that others may follow, to tread the path with bruised feet in order that others may have a smooth road to lead them to the heights of knowledge.
That is the only advantage of coming in : to know in your own heart that you realise what is coming, and are helping to make it come more quickly for the benefit of your fellow-men; that you are working for" humanity; that you are co-workers with God, in making the knowledge of Him spread abroad on every side; that you are amongst those to whom future centuries will look back, thanking you that you saw the light when all men thought it was dark, and that you recognised the coming dawn when others believed the earth was sunk in midnight. I know of no inspiration more inspiring, of no ideal that lifts men to greater heights, of no hope that is so full of splendor, no thought that is so full of energy, as the inspiration, and the ideal, and the hope, and the thought, that you are working for the future, for the day that has not yet come. There will be so many in the days to come who will see the truth, so many in the unborn generations who will live from the hour of their birth in the light of the Divine Wisdom. And what is it not to know that one is bringing that nearer ? to feel that this great treasure is placed in your hands for the enriching of humanity, and that the bankruptcy of humanity is over and the wealth is being spread broadcast on every side ?
What a privilege to know that those generations in the future, rejoicing in the light, will feel some touch of thanks and gratitude to those who brought it when the days were dark, to those whose faith in the Self was so strong that they could believe when all other things were against it, to those whose surety of the
divine knowledge was so mighty that they could proclaim its possibility to an agnostic world. That is the only reason why you should come into the vanguard, that the only reason why you should join the ranks of the pioneers. Hard work and little reward, hard words and little praise, but the knowledge that you work for the future, and that with the co-operation of Deity the final result is sure.
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