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Theosophy: A Modern Expression of the Wisdom of the Ages

Theosophy: A Modern Expression of the Wisdom of the Ages

by Robert Ellwood

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A professor of religion explores Theosophical ideas in modern times. Major concepts discussed include reincarnation, karma, evolution, the Oneness of all life, the cyclic nature of creation, and the mystery of consciousness.


A professor of religion explores Theosophical ideas in modern times. Major concepts discussed include reincarnation, karma, evolution, the Oneness of all life, the cyclic nature of creation, and the mystery of consciousness.

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A Modern Expression of the Wisdom of the Ages

By Robert Ellwood

Theosophical Publishing House

Copyright © 1986 Theosophical Publishing House
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8356-0607-3


Theosophical Foundations


Theosophical wisdom points to realities exceeding the power of human words and concepts. Yet it employs words, for it indicates that the answers to the problems of human existence do lie, so to speak, in certain directions. Some ideas which can be put into words—Oneness, the interaction of consciousness and matter, periodicity or the recurrence of cycles, karma or cause-and-effect, for instance—do get at the really deep structures underlying what we experience much better than other ideas. While there are no cast-in-cement dogmas, theosophical discussion keeps coming back to certain basic topics such as these.

Modern writers in the theosophical tradition have made various lists of basic concepts. They all differ somewhat in wording, but readers will also be struck by a high degree of repetition. This suggests two things. First, that there are, indeed, some core ideas held by most people in the theosophical tradition. Second, the difference in wording and in the exact scope of the lists shows that the way theosophy is understood and expressed is always an individual matter. Let us now examine some of these basic ideas.

First we might look at three fundamental propositions basic to H. P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine. Briefly stated, they are as follows:

1. An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless and Immutable PRINCIPLE, on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception and could only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude. It is beyond the range and reach of thought—in the words of the Mandukya [Upanishad], "unthinkable and unspeakable."

2. The Eternity of the Universe in toto is a boundless plane, periodically "the playground of numberless Universes incessantly manifesting and disappearing," called "the manifesting stars" and the "sparks of Eternity." "The Eternity of the Pilgrim" is like a wink of the Eye of Self Existence ..." "The appearance and disappearance of Worlds is like a regular tidal ebb of flux and reflux."

3. The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul—a spark of the former—through the Cycle of Incarnation (or "Necessity") in accordance with cyclic and karmic law, during the whole term. (Summarized from I:79-82/I:14-17.)

Building from this magnificent statement, we shall now list a few points which will be central to our approach to theosophy.

A. One infinite and incomprehensible Reality underlies and unites all that is or can ever be. It expresses itself through consciousness and matter, so that all phenomena represent the complex interaction of these two.

B. Universes, solar systems, and worlds develop through immense cycles in accordance with the dynamics of this interaction.

C. The individual human being, sometimes called "The Pilgrim," moves through these universes and worlds lifetime after lifetime in response to karma and the necessity of experiencing many kinds of being, before returning to the Source, the One.

D. There is a reservoir of wisdom in our world, known to those well advanced on the path but accessible to all earnest seekers, that can help us to understand and grow in these truths.

E. Growth is not only a matter of intellectual learning but involves also initiation or inward transformation and living in accordance with the spirit of openness and the oneness of all being that the truth implies.

Another list which ought to be taken into account, though of a different nature from the foregoing, are the "Three Declared Objects" of the Theosophical Society which are published in most of its documents and periodicals. These are important because they illustrate the difference, and interrelationship, between the "consensus" theosophical teaching about the nature of humanity and the universe (indicated in what we have presented) and the concrete role of the Theosophical Society. The Objects are:

1. To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.

2. To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Science.

3. To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.

The only intellectual commitment expected of people wishing to affiliate with the Theosophical Society is that they declare themselves "in sympathy" with these objects. No philosophical or theological doctrine is mandated, not even a concept as fundamental to the "consensus" as Oneness and the omnipresence of consciousness. Rather, one is simply encouraged to study comparative religion, philosophy, and science, and to investigate unexplained laws of nature and powers latent in man, both individually and in concert with the Society.

The theosophical tradition has confidence that if one pursues these studies and investigations with sufficient honesty and depth, one will come to realize, in one's own way, the Oneness of the universe, the inner significance of consciousness, and the other broad consensus points of the tradition. But the crucial matter to be understood is that these are truths that one must learn for oneself and are never rightly appropriated simply as dogmas. One who takes them merely on the authority of others, or of an institution, does not really begin to comprehend them, even if that person uses all the "right" words.

Second, we see in the first Object a program which puts the consensus ideas, very broadly conceived, into practical application. For theosophy teaches that the unity of the universe is its most basic reality, consciousness is always intertwined with appearances, and all humanity is on the same great path. How could this be expressed socially but in ways that emphasize the universal brotherhood of humanity and that make no distinction on grounds of race, creed, sex, caste, or color? Of this natural brotherhood the Theosophical Society forms a nucleus. To worldly eyes this Society doubtless seems small and insignificant before the immense divisions and inequalities which still beset the race. Yet, small as it is, it is still an organization which, more than many larger ones, is interracial, cross-cultural, cross-creedal, and committed to sexual equality. A nucleus does not have to be large in comparison to that of which it is nucleus, or even at the precise center; like a kernel of grain or, say, the nucleus of an art collection, it merely has to show the direction of authentic growth and facilitate that growth, not be the whole collection. Its members believe that the Theosophical Society is quietly doing its work in that respect and that its consensus teachings explain why only "Universal Brotherhood" can be the true destination of the human adventure.


We must now get back to the basic features of the consensus. After Oneness, the most important point is that observed reality is the interplay of consciousness and matter, of which outward forms are but reflections. If we ask what it is that effectively unites all existence, it would be the link between consciousness and matter. That link holds near and far, past and future, together in a single thought. It is the force that binds all things together.

Consciousness, then, is everywhere we see space, time, and form at all. We may, in a commonsense way, think that some things like rocks and clouds are matter only. At the atomic level, however, even the solidest rock dissolves away into pure energy, and this, says wisdom, betokens the interaction of consciousness and its material counterpart, the two inseparable expressions of the fundamental reality at the core of what seems pure matter.

The Secret Doctrine tells us further that time "is only an illusion produced by the succession of our states of consciousness as we travel through Eternal Duration, and it does not exist where no consciousness exists in which the illusion can be produced, but 'lies asleep.'" Eternal Duration, we are told, is not time as we think of it, but a process in which ever-real idea-forms pass through a "mathematical line" known as the present, into the "region of memories that we name the Past." Only a kind of blurring in the mind gives us the sensation of temporal duration. (I:110/I:37)

It may be pointed out that this picture of the universe and mind converges remarkably with the holographic model of the universe proposed by Karl Pribram of Stanford in the 1970s. A holograph is a three-dimensional representation or picture made by reflecting light off a photographic plate which has been imprinted with the holograph, or code, by a laser beam together with light bounced off the object to the pictured. A key characteristic of a hologram is that all parts of it contain the whole; if broken, the entire picture can be reproduced in less detail from any fragment.

Pribram concluded that the brain operates by a sort of holographic process; it constructs reality by creating holographic images within itself from frequencies (ideal forms?) that have no time or space reality of their own. The primary order of the universe, then, is not actual space, time, or substance, but nondimensional waves prior to these, which the mind interprets holographically as material reality. Ultimately, then, the universe would not be made up of entities localized in space and time, this star here and that one there, an event now and another a million years in past or future. As in Blavatsky's Eternal Duration, all possibilities are present all the time, latent in every part of the universe as in a holographic code, ready to be reproduced from any fragment of it—including the fragment which is a human brain.

The universe and its history, and our own life-stories, then, are simply images we are creating and stories we are telling ourselves from out of the holographic frequencies in our minds, in accordance with our particular principle of selectivity from the infinite array of images available. For the mind, in Henri Bergson's term, works as a reducing valve, ordinarily able to channel only a tiny bit of the endless sensory and other sensations available.

From the theosophical point of view, the particular world each of us creates from out of the unimaginable range of holographic codes available is based on affinity, or (in the theosophical term we shall soon discuss more fully) karma.

In passing, let us observe that in this model of the universe no theoretical objection exists to psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance (awareness of events far away), precognition (knowledge of future events), retrocognition (perception of past scenes in present time), or telepathy. For near and far, past and future would all be amenable to holographic reproduction from every fragment of space and time, if (so to speak) the light hits it right or the receiving mind can tilt itself the right way. While not the central focus of theosophy, such phenomena have always been accepted by the tradition as significant, since they offer clues to the true nature of reality and have played important roles in the history of the Ancient Wisdom.

Theosophists are not bound to Pribram's or any other model of reality, whether from religion, philosophy or the physical sciences, being aware that such models come and go as human thought develops. Models from one's own time which show a convergence with the spirit of the tradition can, however, serve as metaphors which help in understanding, just as theosophical language itself should be regarded as mere pointing toward the truth not truth itself.

In this case, though, both views appear to be pointing to a concept that all existence is unified in the truly radical sense that it is all finally the timeless and spaceless stuff of "raw" consciousness and matter, processed by "minds" to produce the apparent universe. Blavatsky, as usual, puts it well: The universal process is "the only universal and eternal reality casting a periodical reflection of itself on the infinite Spatial depths. This reflection, which you regard as the objective material universe, we consider as a temporary illusion and nothing else." Personalities, she says in a striking illustration, are like the sudden flashes of the Northern Lights, "as real as can be while you look at it," yet also an illusion for (as in all reality) nothing tangible is there, the lights are not as real as the forces which produced them. (Key, 84-85)

Or as The Secret Doctrine puts it:

Nothing is permanent except the one hidden absolute Existence which contains in itself the noumena of all realities. The existences belonging to every plane of being, up to the highest Dhyan Chohans, are, comparatively, like the shadow cast by a magic lantern on a colorless screen. Nevertheless all things are relatively real, for the cognizer is also a reflection, and the things cognized are therefore as real to him as himself. (I:113/I:39)

This illusion/reality is called Maya, the Sanskrit term, which is, incidentally, related to our word magic, suggesting that the visible universe is akin to a magician's show. As we grow in development, we realize more and more the real nature of its sleights-of-hand, though for long the process may mean only the replacement of one mayavic image for another. This way to realization is called in India Jnana Yoga, the way of meditation using intellectual analysis. Helena Blavatsky put the matter strikingly in a discourse given in the last year of her life, preserved as follows in notes taken by Commander Robert Bowen, a student of hers.

As one progresses in Jnana Yoga, one finds conceptions arising which, though one is conscious of them, one cannot express nor yet formulate into any sort of mental picture. As time goes on these conceptions will form into mental pictures. This is a time to be on guard and refuse to be deluded with the idea that the new found and wonderful picture must represent reality. It does not. As one works on, one finds the once admired picture growing dull and unsatisfying, and finally fading out or being thrown away. This is another danger point, because for the moment one is left in a void without any conception to support one, and one may be tempted to revive the cast-off picture for want of a better to cling to. The true student will, however, work on unconcerned, and presently further formless gleams come, which again in time give rise to a larger and more beautiful picture than the last. But the learner will now know that no picture will ever represent the TRUTH. This last splendid picture will grow dull and fade like the others. And so the process goes on, until at last the mind and its pictures are transcended and the learner enters and dwells in the World of NO FORM, but of which all forms are narrowed reflections.

The true student of The Secret Doctrine is a Jnana Yogi, and this Path of Yoga is the True Path for the Western student. It is to provide him with sign posts on that Path that The Secret Doctrine has been written. (From notes recorded by Robert Bowen in 1891 from lectures by H. P. Blavatsky. Published in Ianthe H. Hoskins, ed., Foundations of Esoteric Philosophy from the Writings of H. P. Blavatsky. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980, pp. 66-67.)

We can see that, if all arises from consciousness interacting with matter then clearly all is alive, and there is no dead matter or wholly disembodied spirit. In this interplay, all forms are seen as but stages of development. From this starting point, all the other concepts of theosophy will fall into place.

It is important to underscore that theosophy is not some form of metaphysical idealism or mentalism which says that consciousness is prior to matter, or that what we see of the material world is no more than a projection of mind having no reality apart from mind. Misconceptions on this score are all too easy, for theosophy does speak of consciousness as being everywhere, and of everything we see, however "material" it appears, as shaped by consciousness. But matter in some form is always present; without it, consciousness would have nothing to shape and nothing to respond to in its creative activity. It would be as empty as matter without spirit. What is prior is not consciousness as we know it but the Unknown Root from which both consciousness and matter stem. Thus, the universe is a great concourse of interconnected being, matter and spirit, larger and smaller, inner and outer. In a much-quoted passage from The Secret Doctrine:

From Gods to men, from Worlds to atoms, from a Star to a rush-light, from the Sun to the vital heat of the meanest organic being—the world of Form and Existence is an immense chain, the links of which are all connected. The Law of Analogy is the first key to the world problem, and these links have to be studied coordinately in the Occult relations to each other. (II:328/I:604)


Excerpted from Theosophy by Robert Ellwood. Copyright © 1986 Theosophical Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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