It would be natural enough, perhaps, to suppose that a subject such as Basic Principles of Theosophy—or “basic principles” of anything else—would be a subject easy to present and easy to comprehend. But this is far from the case when one tries to consider the total meaning of the history of theosophic thought, and the totality of the writings of Madame H. P. Blavatsky. The following collation, taken from several portions of H.P.B.’s writings, indicates the dual nature of Theosophy and the interrelationship of attitude and doctrine. In other words, her development of Theosophy as a system of thought is meant to have an appropriate preface:
Theosophy allows a hearing and a fair chance to all. It deems no views—if sincere—entirely destitute of truth. It respects thinking men, to whatever class of thought they may belong. Indeed, the conclusions or deductions of a philosophic writer may be entirely opposed to our views and the teachings we expound; yet, his premises and statements of facts may be quite correct, and other people may profit by the adverse philosophy, even if we ourselves reject it, believing we have something higher and still nearer to the truth. Every true fact, every sincere word are thus part and parcel of Theosophy. One who is even approximately blessed with the gift of the perception of truth, will find and extract it from an erroneous as much as from a correct statement. However small the particle of gold lost in a ton of rubbish, it is the noble metal still, and worthy of being dug out even at the price of some extra trouble.The fundamental teaching of Theosophy is that mankind is essentially of one and the same essence, and that essence is one—infinite, uncreate, and eternal, whether we call it God or Nature—nothing, therefore, can affect one nation or one man without affecting all other nations and all other men. With this object in view, it is the duty of all Theosophists to promote in every practical way, and in all countries, the spread of non-sectarian education. What is also needed is to impress men with the idea that, if the root of mankind is one, then there must also be one truth which finds expression in all the various religions.
Our Deity is the eternal, incessantly evolving, not creating, builder of the universe; that universe itself unfolding out of its own essence, not being made. It is the one law, giving the impulse to manifested, eternal, and immutable laws, within that never-manifesting, because absolute LAW, which in its manifesting periods is The ever-Becoming.
Moreover, the Secret Doctrine teaches: The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul through the Cycle of Incarnation. In other words, no Soul can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the Over-Soul has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts. The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.
The last two paragraphs outline Theosophy as a philosophical construct. But Madame Blavatsky’s writings also repeatedly turn to the prefatory emphases; she points out that Theosophy is much more than a matter of doctrine or particular precepts or propositions; it is also a matter of the fundamental attitude of truth-seeking on the part of the one who becomes a theosophical student. It is therefore necessary to consider Theosophy from two different aspects, in order to gain all the meaning implied by the word. Finally, one may hope to show the relationship between “doctrine” and “attitude.”
The first implication of the word Theosophy signifies the capacity in all men to become students of divine wisdom; that is, to have direct apprehension of essential reality. This assumption also means that Theosophy is “created” by each man, for himself. Such teachings as he may study, such disciplines as he may undertake, are only contributory to whatever sure wisdom he is able to attain. This realization, truly, is one of the “first principles” of Theosophy, and distinguishes Theosophy in all ages from the typical approach of sectarian religion.
The theosophical student must fight for self-knowledge; he must be on an adventure of the mind; he must undergo a discipline of his emotional nature; he must nurture a growth of the soul. He apprehends Theosophy only in so far as he does this, and therefore Theosophy may not be learned as one learns a particular science. Nor can the memorization and repetition of various statements made by a Buddha, a Krishna, an H.P.B., qualify him as a Theosophist in this basic sense. Even a nineteenth century encyclopedia’s definition of the word Theosophy took this dimension into account, stressing that Theosophy was presented as a wisdom which must come to each person according to his own powers of revelation; not revelation from on high. Theosophy means “divine wisdom,” because the nature of man is therein considered to be so exalted in potentiality that each human being is actually able to apprehend basic truths. This outlook on the nature of man, this faith in his ultimate capacity to pass beyond the confines of prejudicial creeds, beyond partisanship in philosophy and religion and all things else—this is another “basic principle” of Theosophy. And it relates to the first fundamental proposition of H.P.B.’s major work, The Secret Doctrine.
Another basic principle of Theosophy is revealed by a study of what has been called the “Theosophical Movement” of ideas throughout history. The word Theosophy apparently comes to us from ancient Egyptian times, but was given specific meaning in the third century of our era by Ammonius Saccas, an Alexandrian philosopher who was more than just another philosopher with a particular emphasis of his own to present. He called his school the “Eclectic Theosophical system”; its members, he called “philaletheians”—lovers of truth. Truth was to be honored wherever it was found. So, in the school of Ammonius, the teachings of Zoroaster, of Buddha, and of ancient and modern Greek philosophers, were all studied. The program was built upon the fundamental assumption that each man has a portion, a glimpse, a vision of the truth of his own nature. The idea, then, was to help men to further realize the greatness of the human capacity to envision, to philosophize, to learn. Each of the schools of thought which Ammonius brought together represented a particular emphasis, a particular kind of illumination concerning the life of the soul.
The disciples of Ammonius were also called “analogists,” in recognition of the attempt of Ammonius to focus attention on the related content of all symbolism which has to do with the life and growth of the soul. The Alexandrian theosophists saw everywhere—in the symbolic representations of the past, in drama and poetry and art—a representation of the life of the soul, a poetic expression of the striving of the soul. This second basic principle to which we are calling attention, then, has to do with the willingness to explore in all directions for truth; to see truth, not as revealed only in a single formation, but rather as illumined and enlightened by even the partial truths of less exalted thought.
This particular principle of Theosophy was fundamental also to the Theosophical Society of the last century. The second object of the Society amounted to a declaration on the part of its members to devote themselves impartially to a comparative study of ancient and modern religions and philosophies. It was then made clear to all who became members of the Theosophical Society that no particular set of doctrines was to be regarded as official; that all were entitled to their own beliefs whether they be Moslem, Buddhist, Christian, or even sincere and searching materialists or psychic researchers in the Spiritualist ranks. Members were simply asked (and even this request was implicit) to somehow transform, to evaluate, improve, and revise their beliefs. So while men were never interfered with in their particular faiths, they were invited, by the very fact that there were others around them with different points of emphasis and different backgrounds, to see the need for discovering the “divine” capacity for the sort of wisdom that leads men to see beyond differences, beyond the splits of ideas; to see that two almost contradictory doctrines might, in logic and at one point in history, have been of common origin.
So the Theosophical Society actually demanded more than intellectual study; it required an intellectual discipline, but the dream was to awaken a sense of universal brotherhood. If we have sufficient understanding, we cannot despise, fear, or condemn our fellows; we can see in their struggles and tribulations but another chapter in the story of a soul, and this does away with the “moralisms,” the condemnations. It also does away with the tendency to go the way of a strict set of commandments, to build a code of morality which governs actions and leaves out of account the inner difficulties besetting the individuals involved.
This, in other words, is the broad view of one’s fellow-man suggested by, and the inevitable result of, the sincere study of different ideas and beliefs. Here again is a second “basic principle” of Theosophy that may not be separated from those propositions which Theosophical students are first prone to think of. This is the area out of which apprehension of specific propositions and principles may come; without this attitude, one may become enslaved by even the most exalted doctrine, and think he possesses wisdom, when actually he possesses only the faint reflection of the wisdom of someone else.
The Third Fundamental Proposition of Theosophy as a system of thought was quoted in the last paragraph of our collation. This proposition states, in effect, that when man considers himself as having wondrous powers, he must realize that the soul is transcendent of the body—that the soul is real and lives forever, and that the soul creates for itself its own conditions of reward and punishment through a long cycle of metempsychosis, as it transforms and refines its “character.” Man, therefore, is in a very real sense a “law unto himself.” As Buddha says: “Ye suffer from yourselves. None else compels, none other holds you that ye live and die.” Those who become great sages, become such, not because they were fortunate in their teachers, not because they were favored by revelation, but because they achieved discipline, and persevered in attaining broader vision. Therefore, on the basis of this Third Proposition of H.P.B.’s Secret Doctrine, we begin to see the setting for the idea of a fraternity of great sages or adepts, initiates and Mahatmas, who have inevitably attained a clear apprehension through this long process of evolution. There, again, the fundamental assumption is that the full wisdom of Theosophy is a natural heritage of all mankind.
The Second Proposition of The Secret Doctrine, asserting universal periodicity in action, was very briefly stated by Madame Blavatsky, doubtless to inspire reflection. Everything conceivable has something to do with the law of cycles. Beginning with ourselves, we can see the psychological importance of reflecting on periodicity, since it suggests that there is a reason why we must come back again and again to the same experience—frequently an unfortunate one. We are drawn through life’s experiences by whatever we still need to comprehend. The grasping of experience, distilling from experience, constitutes the purpose of soul. So just as there is an endless cycle of day and night, an endless cycling of the seasons, so for man there is the endless cycle of coming back again and again to those areas of experience where something has not yet been thoroughly learned. The symbol of the Eastern doctrine of “release” from bondage to rebirth is a symbol of man’s capacity to ultimately transcend the need for being forced into any of the experiences in which he presently flounders.
The law of periodicity, then, is the law of learning—an essential of Theosophic teaching of all times. Reincarnation or rebirth of the soul is but an aspect of perceiving that learning is cyclical, as is everything else in nature. Cycles are inevitable, because of an ever-present duality: the co-existence of what we call “spirit” and “matter,” the indwelling soul and the outward form. The form is perishable since it is a compound; and since it must disintegrate at the time we call death, it is equally inevitable that there should always be a drawing together of soul and form in co-operation, again constituting a cycle in the re-embodiment of intelligence. This is why reflection upon the universality of periodicity is a profound step in philosophy. It would appear that in stating the Second Proposition thus simply, Madame Blavatsky deliberately left out a development of these various themes because she wished to stimulate each one in this manner to think, to see what universal laws of learning are involved. So that reincarnation and karma, for instance, are not “doctrines” that Theosophists “believe,” but are natural corollaries of a revelation which the student has brought to himself about the fundamental nature of reality: “reality” being dual, that of soul and form, the combination of the two means cyclic re-embodiment.
Ammonius Saccas said that each student must pass through three stages as he moves toward the attainment of wisdom. The first stage is that of opinion. Opinion, of course, is based upon our desire to believe something, or, perhaps, upon what we have been told to believe. In the second stage the disciple must pass through a natural sequence of initiations. This is the stage of “science,” the stage of dialectic, the stage of reason and intellectual discipline. A man must then face his opinions, and realize that they are only “opinions,” and use his mind to get beyond. This second stage in the theosophical tradition is one wherein a man becomes aware of his reliance upon religion, faith, and belief. We all have such reliance to some degree, but the Theosophist is dedicated to become and remain aware of this fact, to see that while it is natural for him to believe, yet his beliefs should never be “blind.” The doctrines which he feels must represent truth are not ultimate truth, or he would never worry about asserting their truthfulness.
The final stage is that of illumination, which comes when the soul-vision is awakened by discipline of the mind. Opinion has then been converted into self-knowledge. When we are willing to relinquish our opinions, then we are ready to discover a great deal about ourselves. Illumination carries with it the synthesis, the harvest, of discipline; it is direct cognition.
So, the theosophical student is not engaged in a simple sort of instruction; no self instruction is simple, nor are all the “principles of Theosophy” to be easily understood.