The Writings of Annie Besant
From a Lecture circa 1889
In dealing with a great theme within narrow limits one has always to make a choice of evils: one must either substantiate each point, buttress it up with arguments, and thus fail to give any roughly complete idea of the whole; or one must make an outline of the whole, leaving out the proofs which bring conviction of the truth of the teaching. As the main object of this paper is to place before the average man or woman an idea of Theosophy as a whole, I elect to take the inconvenience of the latter alternative, and use the expository instead of the controversial method. Those who are sufficiently interested in the subject to desire further knowledge can easily pass on into the investigation of evidences, evidences that are within the reach of all who have patience, power of thought, and courage.
We, who are Theosophists, allege that there exists a great body of doctrines, philosophical, scientific, and ethical, which forms the basis of, and includes all that is accurate in, the philosophies, sciences, and religions of the ancient and modern worlds. This body of doctrine is a philosophy and a science more than a religion in the ordinary sense of the word, for it does not impose dogmas as necessary to be believed under any kind of supernatural penalties, as do the various Churches of the world. It is indeed a religion, if religion be the binding of life by a sublime ideal; but it puts forward its teachings as capable of demonstration, not on authority which it is blasphemy to challenge or deny.
That some great body of doctrine did exist in
antiquity, and was transmitted from generation to generation, is patent to any
investigator. It was this which was taught in the Mysteries, of which Dr.
Warburton wrote: "The wisest and best men in the Pagan world are unanimous
in this, that the Mysteries were instituted pure, and proposed the noblest ends
by the worthiest means." To speak of the Initiates is to speak of the
greatest men of old: in their ranks we find Plato and Pythagoras, Euclid and
Democritus, Thales and Solon, Apollonius and Iamblichus. In the Mysteries
unveiled they learned their wisdom, and gave out to the world such fragments of
it as their oath allowed. But those fragments have fed the world for centuries,
and even yet the learned of the modern West sit at the feet of these elder sons
of wisdom. Among the teachers of the early Christian Church some of these men
were found; they held Christianity in its esoteric meaning, and used exoteric
dogmas merely as veils to cover the hidden truth. "Unto you it is
given," said Jesus, "to know the mystery of the
Passing strange is it to note how the minds of men have changed in their aspect to the guardians of the Hidden Wisdom. Of old, in their passionate gratitude, men regarded them as well nigh divine, thinking no honours too great to pay to those who had won the right of entrance into the temple of the Unveiled Truth. In the Middle Ages, when men, having turned from the light, saw devils everywhere in the darkness, the Adepts of the Right Hand Path were dreaded as those of the Left, and wherever new knowledge appeared and obscure regions of nature were made visible, cries of terror and wrath rent the air, and men paid their benefactors with torture and with death. In our own time, secure in the completeness of our knowledge, certain that Our philosophy embraces all things possible in heaven and earth, we neither honour the teachers as gods nor denounce them as devils: with a shrug of contempt and a sniff of derision we turn from them, as they come to us with outstretched hands full of priceless gifts, and we mutter, "Frauds, charlatans!" entrenched as we are in our modern conceit that only the nineteenth century is wise.
Theosophy claims to be this Secret Wisdom, this great body of doctrine, and it alleges that this precious deposit, enriched with the results of the investigations of generations of seers and sages, verified by countless experiments, is to-day, as of old, in the hands of a mighty Brotherhood, variously spoken of as Adepts, Masters, Mahatmas, Brothers, who are living men, evolved further than average humanity, who work ever for the service of their race with a perfect and selfless devotion, holding their high powers in trust for the common good, content to be without recognition, having power beyond all desires of the personal self.
The claim is a lofty one, but it can be substantiated by evidence. I leave it as a mere statement of the position taken up. Coming to the Western world to-day, Theosophy speaks far more openly than it has ever done before, owing to the simple fact that with the evolution of the race man has become more and more fitted to be the recipient of such knowledge, so that what would once be taught to only a small minority may now find a wider field. Some of the doctrine is now thrown broadcast, so that all who can receive it may: but the keys which unlock the mysteries are still committed but to few hands, hands too well tried to tremble under their weight, or to let them slip from either weakness or treachery. As of old so now, the Secret Wisdom is guarded, not by the arbitrary consent or refusal of the teachers to impart instruction, but by the capacity of the student to understand and to assimilate.
Theosophy postulates the existence of an eternal Principle, known only through its effects. No words can describe It, for words imply discriminations, and This is ALL. We murmur, Absolute, Infinite, Unconditioned, - but the words mean naught. SAT, the Wise speak of: BE-NESS, not even Being nor Existence. Only as the Manifested becomes can language be used with meaning; but the appearance of the Manifested implies the Un-manifested, for the Manifested is transitory and mutable, and there must be something that eternally endures. This Eternal must be postulated, else whence the existences around us? It must contain within Itself That which is the essence of the germ of all possibilities, all potencies: space is the only conception that can even faintly mirror It without preposterous distortion, but silence least offends in these high regions where the wings of thought beat faintly and lips can only falter, not pronounce.
The universe is, in Theosophy, the manifestation of an aspect of SAT. Rhythmically succeed each other periods of activity and periods of repose, periods of manifestation and periods of absorption, the expiration and inspiration of the Great Breath, in the figurative and most expressive phraseology of the East. The outbreathing is the manifested worlds; the inbreathing terminates the period of activity. The Root-Substance differentiates into "spirit-matter," whereof the universe, visible and invisible, is built up, evolving into seven stages, or planes, of manifestation, each denser than its predecessor; the substance is the same in all, but the degrees of its density differ. So the chemist may have in his receiver water held invisible: he may condense it into a faint mist-cloud, condense it further into vapour, further yet into liquid, further yet into solid; throughout he has the same chemical compound, though he changes its condition. Now it is well to remember that the chemist is dealing with facts in nature, and that his results may therefore throw light on natural methods, working in larger fields; we may at least learn from such an illustration to clarify our conceptions of the past course of evolution. Thus, from the Theosophical standpoint, "spirit" and "matter" are essentially one, and the universe one living whole from centre to circumference, not a molecule in it that is not instinct with life. Hence the difficulty that scientists have always found in defining "life." Every definition they have made has broken down as excluding some phenomena that they were compelled to recognise as those of life. Sentiency, in our meaning of the word there may not be, say in the mineral; but is it therefore "dead"? Its particles cohere, they vibrate, they attract and they repel: what are these but manifestations of that living energy which rolls the worlds in their courses, flashes from continent to continent, thrills from root to summit of the plant, pulses in the animal, reasons in the man? One Life and therefore One Law everywhere, not a Chaos of warring atoms but a Kosmos of ordered growth. Death itself is but a change in life-manifestation, life which has outworn one garment and, rending it in pieces, clothes itself anew. When the thoughtless say, "He is dead," the wise know that the countless "lives" of which the human body is built up have become charged with more energy than the bodily structure can stand, that the strain has become too great, that disruption must ensue. But "death" is only transformation not destruction, and every molecule has pure life-essence at its core with the material garment it has woven round itself of its own substance for action on the objective plane.
Each of the seven Kosmic planes of manifestation is marked off by its own characteristics; in the first pure "spirit," the primary emanation of the ONE, subtlest, rarest, of all manifestations, incognisable even by the highest of Adepts save as present in its vehicle, the Spiritual Soul: without form, without intelligence, as we use the word - these matters are too high, "I cannot attain unto them." Next comes the plane of Mind, of loftiest spiritual intelligence, where first entity as entity can be postulated; individualism begins, the Ego first appears. Rare and subtle is matter on that plane, yet form is there possible, for the individual implies the presence of limitation, the separation of the "I" from the "not I." Fourth, still densifying, comes the plane of animal passions and desires, actual forms on their own plane. Then, fifthly, that of the vivid animating life-principle, as, absorbed in forms. Sixthly, the astral plane, in which matter is but slightly rarer than with ourselves. Seventhly, the plane familiar to all of us, that of the objective universe. Let us delay for a moment over this question of "planes," for on the understanding of it hinges our grasp of the philosophical aspect of Theosophy. A plane may be defined as a state, marked off by clear characteristics; it must not be thought of as a place, as though the universe were made up of shells one within the other like the coats of an onion. The conception is metaphysical, not physical, the consciousness acting on each plane in fashion appropriate to each. Thus a man may pass from the plane of the objective in which his consciousness is generally acting, on to the other planes: he may pass into the astral in sleep, under mesmerism, under the influence of various drugs; his consciousness may be removed from the physical plane, his body passive, his brain inert; an electric light leaves his eyes unaffected, a gong beaten at his ear cannot rouse the organ of hearing; the organs through which his consciousness normally acts in the physical universe are all useless, for the consciousness that uses them is transferred to another plane. But he can see, hear, understand, on the astral plane, see sights invisible to physical eyes, hear sounds inaudible to physical ears. Not real? What is "real"? Some people confine the real to the tangible and only believe in the existence of a thing that can knock them down with a lesion to prove the striking. But an emotion can slay as swiftly as an arrow; a thought can cure with as much certainty as a drug. All the mightiest forces are those which are invisible on this plane, visible though they be to senses subtler than our own. Take the case of a soldier who in the mad passion of slaughter, the lust for blood, is wounded in the onward charge, and knows not the wounding till his passions cool and the fight is over; his consciousness during the fight is transferred to the fourth plane, that of the emotions and passions, and it is not till it returns from that to the plane of the physical body that pain is felt. So again will a great philosopher, his consciousness rising to the plane of intelligence, become wholly abstracted - as we well say - from the physical plane; brooding over some deep problem, he forgets all physical wants, all bodily appetites, and becomes concentrated entirely on the thought-plane, the fifth, in Theosophic parlance.
Now the consciousness of man can thus pass from plane
to plane because he is himself the universe in miniature, and is built up
himself of these seven "principles," as they are sometimes called, or
better, is himself a differentiation of consciousness on seven planes. It may
be well, at this stage, to give to these states of consciousness the names by
which they are known in Theosophical literature, for although some people shrink
from names that are unfamiliar, there are, after all, only seven of them, and
the use of them enables one to avoid the continual repetition of clumsy and
inexact descriptive sentences. To Macrocosm and Microcosm alike the names
apply, although they are most often found in relation to man. The Spirit in man
is named Atma, cognisable only in its vehicle Buddhi, the Spiritual Soul; these
are the reflexions in man or the highest planes in the universe. The Spiritual
Intelligence is Manas, the Ego in man, the immortal entity, the link between
Atma-Buddhi and the temporary personality. Below these come in order
Each of these planes has its own organisms, its own phenomena, the laws of its own manifestation; and each can be investigated as exactly, as scientifically, as experimentally, as the objective plane with which we are most familiar. All that is necessary is that we should use appropriate organs of sensation, and appropriate methods of investigation. On the objective plane we are already able to obey this rule; we do not use our eyes to listen to sounds, and then deny that sounds exist because our eyes cannot hear them; nor do we take in hand the microscope to examine a distant nebula, and then say that the nebula is not there because the field of the microscope is dark. A very slight knowledge of our own objective universe will place us in the right mental attitude towards the unknown. Why do we see, hear, taste, feel? Merely because our physical body is capable of receiving certain impressions from without by way of the avenues of sense. But there are myriads of phenomena, as "real" as those we familiarly cognise, which are to us non-existent, for the very simple reason that our organs of sensation are not adapted to receive them. Take the air-vibrations which, translated into terms of consciousness, we call sound. If an instrument that emits successive notes be sounded in a room with a dozen people, as the notes become shriller and shriller one person after another drops out of the circle of auditors, and is wrapped in silence while still a note is sounding, audible to others there; at last a pipe speaks that no one hears, and though all the air be throbbing with its vibrations, silence complete reigns in the room. The vibration-waves have become so short and rapid that the mechanism of the human ear cannot vibrate in unison with them; the objective phenomenon is there, but the subjective does not respond to it, so that for man it does not exist. Similar illustrations might be drawn in connection with every sense, and it is surely not too much to claim that if on the plane to which our bodies are correlated, phenomena constantly escape our dull perceptions, men shall not found on their ignorance of other planes the absolute denial of their existence. Ignorance can only justify silence, suspension of judgment; it cannot justify denial. Knowledge is necessary for rational belief, but the verifiable assertions of those who claim such knowledge are surely more weighty than the mere denial of ignorance. As in all other branches of scientific inquiry, investigation should precede the formation of opinion, and those who would understand and experiment in the occult regions of nature must, by long, steady, and patient courage, become occultists. Only informed opinion is of any weight in discussion, and in occult science, as in every other, the mere chatter and vituperation of uninformed criticism do not count. The occultist can be no more moved thereby than Professor Huxley by the assertions of a fourth-standard schoolboy. Those who have time, ability, and courage, can develop in themselves the senses and the capacities which enable the consciousness to come into touch with the higher planes, senses and capacities already evolved and fully at work in some, and to be in the course of ages the common inheritance of every child of man. All the so-called phenomena which have been so much spoken of in connection with H. P. Blavatsky were but the simple outcome of her highly evolved nature, her control over the forces of the objective plane being exercised as naturally and carelessly as the electrician utilises his knowledge to bring about results that would seem miraculous to the African savage.
They were but sparks flung outwards by the fire that ever steadily burned within, as difficult for her to smother as for us to live down to a level of civilization far below our own. I know that the exercise of these powers often arouses in the minds of people convinced of their reality an eager desire to possess them, but only those who will pay the price can attain possession. And the first instalment of that price is the absolute renunciation of all that men prize and long for here on earth; complete self-abnegation; perfect devotion to the service of others; destruction of all personal desires; detachment from all earthly things. Such is the first step on the Right-Hand Path, and until that step is taken it is idle to talk of further progress along that thorny road. Occultism wears no crown save that of thorns, and its sceptre of command is the seven-knotted wand, in which each knot marks the payment of a price from which the normal man or woman would turn shuddering away. It is because of this that it is not worth while to deal with this aspect of Theosophy at any length. What does concern us is the general plan of evolution, the "pilgrimage" of the Ego, of the individual, encased in the outer shell of the personality.
The evolution of man consists in the acquirement by the Ego of experience, and the gradual moulding of the physical nature into a form which can readily respond to every prompting of the spirit within. This evolution is carried on by the repeated incarnation of the Ego, over-shadowed by the spirit, in successive personalities, through which it lives and acts on the objective plane. The task before it when it starts on the wheel of life on this earth, during the present cycle, is to acquire and assimilate all experience, and so to energize and sublimate the objective form of man that it may become a fit instrument and dwelling for the spirit; the complete assimilation of the Ego with the spirit, of Manas with Atma-Buddhi, being the final goal of the long and painful pilgrimage. It is obvious that such work cannot be accomplished in one lifetime, or in a few. For such gigantic task countless lives must be required, each life but one step in the long climbing upward. Each life should garner some fresh experience, should add some new capacity or strengthen some budding force; thus is builded up through numberless generations the Perfect Man. Hence the doctrine of Re-incarnation is the very core and essence of Theosophy, and according to the hold this belief has on life, so will be the grasp of the learner on all Theosophic truth.
The term Re-incarnation - expressive as it is of the encasing of the Ego in the man of flesh - is very often misunderstood. It implies the indwelling of the Ego in many successive personalities, but it does not imply the possibility of its incarnation in the brute. In many places and at many times this travesty of the doctrine has prevailed, and it has been taught that the re-incarnating Ego may, as penalty for the transgressions of the human personality with which it has been linked, be flung into the vortex of the brute world and inform some lower animal. But this idea is against Theosophical teaching, according to which the Manasic entity can inhabit only man; it is, indeed, the indwelling of this entity which is the distinction between the man and the brute, a distinction which is ever preserved.
There is no doctrine in the range of philosophy which
throws so much light on the tangled web of human life as does this doctrine of
Re-incarnation. Take, for instance, the immense difference in capacity and in
character found within the limits of the human race. In all plants and in all
animals the characteristic qualities of a species may vary, but within
comparatively narrow limits; so also with man, so far as his outer form, his
instincts, and his animal passions, are concerned. They vary of course, as
those of the brute vary, but their broad outline remains the same. But when we
come to study the differences of mental capacity and moral character, we are
struck with the vast distances that separate man from man. Between the savage,
counting five upon his fingers, and the
The Ego that has completed a span of earth-life, and has shaken off the worn-out personality that it informed, passes into a subjective state of rest, ere re-assuming "the burden of the flesh." Thus it remains for a period varying in length according to the stage of evolution it has reached. When that period is exhausted, it is drawn back to earth-life, to such environment as is suitable for the growing of the seed it has sown in its past. As surely as hydrogen and oxygen rush into union under certain conditions of temperature and of pressure, is the Ego drawn by irresistible affinity to the circumstances that yield opening for its further evolution. Suitable environment, suitable parents to provide suitable physical body, such are some of the conditions that guide the place and time of re-incarnation. The desire for sentient life, the desire for objective expression, that desire which set the universe a-building, impels the Ego to seek renewed manifestation; it is drawn to the surroundings which its own past has made necessary for its further progress. Nor is this all. I have spoken of the fact that each plane has its own organisms, its own laws; the Manasic plane is the plane on which thoughts take forms, objective to all who are able to perceive on that plane. All the experiences of a life, gathered up after death, and the essence, as it were, extracted, have their appropriate thought-forms on the Manasic plane; as the time for the reincarnation of the Ego approaches, these with previous unexhausted similar thought-forms pass to the astral plane, clothe themselves in astral matter, and mould the astral body into form suitable for the working out of their own natural results. Into this astral body the physical is builded, molecule by molecule, the astral mould thus, in its turn, moulding the physical. Through the physical body, including its brain, the re-incarnated Ego has to work for the term of that incarnation, and thus it dwells in a tabernacle of its own construction, the inevitable resultant of its own past earth-lives.
To how many of the problems that vex thinkers to-day by the apparent hopelessness of their solution, is an explanation suggested if, for the moment, Re-incarnation be accepted even as a possible hypothesis. Within the limits of a family hereditary physical likeness, often joined by startling mental and moral divergencies; twins, alike as far as regards heredity and pre-natal environment, yet showing in some cases strong resemblance, in others no less dissimilarity. Cases of precocity, where the infant brain manifests the rarest capacities precedent to all instruction. Cases of rapid gain of knowledge, where the knowledge seems to be remembered rather than acquired, recognised rather than learned. Cases of intuition, startling in their swiftness and lucidity, insight clear and rapid into complicated problems without guide or teacher to show the way. All these and many another similar puzzles receive light from the idea of the persistent individual that informs each personality, and it is a well-known principle in seeking for some general law underlying a mass of apparently unrelated phenomena that the hypothesis which explains most, brings most into accord with an intelligible sequence, is the one most likely to repay further investigation.
To those, again, who shrink from the idea that the Universe is one vast embodiment of injustice, the doctrine of Re-incarnation comes as a mental relief from well-nigh unbearable strain. When we see the eager mind imprisoned in an inefficient body; when we note the differences of mental and moral capacity that make all achievement easy to one, impossible to others; when we come across what seems to be undeserved suffering, disadvantageous circumstances; when we feel longings after heights unattainable for lack of strength; then the knowledge that we create our own character, that we have made our own strength or our own weakness, that we are not the sport of an arbitrary God or of a soulless Destiny, but are verily and indeed the creators of ourselves and of our lot in life - this knowledge comes to us as a support and an inspiration, giving energy to improve and courage to endure.
This immutable law of cause and effect is spoken of as
Karma (action) in Theosophy. Each action - using the word to include all forms of
activity, mental, moral, physical - is a cause and must work out its full
effect. Effect as regards the past, it is cause as regards the future, and
under this sway of Karmic law moves the whole life of man as of all worlds.
Every debt incurred must be duly paid in this or in some other life, and as the
wheel of life turns round it brings with it the fruit of every seed that we
have sown. Re-incarnation under Karmic law, such is the message of Theosophy to
a Christendom which relies on a vicarous atonement and a swift escape to
But how, it may be asked, can you urge to effort, or
press responsibility, if you regard every action as one link in an infrangible
chain of cause and effect? The answer lies in the sevenfold nature of man, in
the action of the higher on the lower. The freewill of man on this plane is
lodged in the Manasic entity, which acts on his lower nature. Absolute freewill
is there none, save in the Unconditioned. When manifestation begins, the
Universal Will becomes bound and limited by the laws of Its own manifestation,
by the fashion of the expression It has chosen as its temporary vehicle.
Conditioned, it is limited by the conditions It has imposed on Itself,
manifesting under garb of the universe in which It wills to body Itself forth.
On each plane Its expression is limited by the capacities of Its embodiments.
Now the Manasic entity in its own sphere is the reflexion, the image, of the
Universal Will in Kosmos. So far as the personality is concerned, the
promptings, the impulses, from the Manasic plane are spontaneous, have every
mark of freedom, and if we start from the lowest plane of objective nature, we
shall see how relative freedom is possible. If a man be loaded with chains, his
muscles will be limited in their power of movement. They are constrained m
their expression by the dead weight of iron pressing upon them; yet the
muscular force is there, although denied outward expression, and the iron
cannot prevent the straining of the fibres against the force used in their
subdual. Again, some strong emotion, some powerful impulse from the
Kama-Manasic plane, may hold rigid the muscles under lesion that would make every
fibre contract and pull the limb away from the knife. The muscles are compelled
from the plane above them, the personal will being free to hold them rigid or
leave them to their natural reaction against injury. From the standpoint of the
muscles the personal will is free, and it cannot be controlled save as to its
material expression on the material plane. When the Manasic entity sends
impulse downwards to the lower nature with which it is linked, conflict arises
between the animal desire and the human will. Its interferences appear to the
personality as spontaneous, free, uncaused by any actions on the lower plane;
and so they are, for the causes that work on it are of the higher not the lower
planes. The animal passions and desires may limit its effective expression on
their own plane, but they cannot either prompt or prevent its impulses; man's
true freedom is found when his lower nature puts itself into line with the
higher, and gives free course to the will of the higher Ego. And so with that
Ego itself: able to act freely on the planes below it, it finds its best
freedom as channel of the Universal Will from which it springs, the conscious
willing harmony with the All of which it is part. An effect cannot be altered
when the cause has appeared; but that effect is itself to be a cause, and here
the will can act. Suppose a great sorrow falls on some shrinking human heart;
the effect is there, cannot be avoided, but its future result as cause may be
one of two things; Kama may rebel, the whole personal nature may rise in
passionate revolt, and so, warring against the Higher Will, the new cause
generated will be of disharmony, bearing in its womb new evil to be born in
days to come. But
Remains but space for one last word on that which is Theosophy in action - the Universal Brotherhood of Man. This teaching is the inevitable outcome of the doctrines of the One Universal Spirit common to all, humanity, Re-incarnation and Karma. Every distinction of race and sex, of class and creed, fades away before the essential unity of the indwelling spirit, before the countless incarnations under all forms of outward garmenture, making the experience of prince and beggar part of the training of all in turn. Here is to be found the motive-spring of action - love for all mankind. In each child of man the true Theosophist recognises a brother to be loved and served, and in the Theosophical Society, Theosophists, under the direction of the Masters, have formed a nucleus for such Brother- hood of Humanity, and have made its recognition the only obligation binding on all who enter. Amid class hatreds and warring sects it raises this sublime banner of human love, a continual reminder that essentially all humanity is one, and that the goal to which we travel is the same for all. Without this recognition of Brotherhood all science is useless and all religion is hypocrisy. Deeper than all diversity, mightier than all animosity, is that Holy Spirit of Love. The Self of each is the Higher Self of all, and that bond is one which nothing in all worlds can avail to break. That which raises one raises all; that which degrades one degrades all. The sin and crime of our race are our sin and crime, and only as we save our brethren can we save ourselves. One in our inception, one in our goal, we must needs be one in our progress; the "curse of separateness" that is on us it is ours to remove, and Theosophy alike as religion and philosophy will be a failure save as it is the embodiment of the life of Love.