To students who might be described as the second and third generations of the Theosophical Society, the Upanishads mean Mr. Johnston, and Mr. Johnston has come to mean, in more senses than one, the Upanishads. His translations and commentaries, begun in 1888, have continued without a break every year until the present—42 years in all. We have grown to expect them with the same regularity that we look to-day for the familiar cover of the Quarterly. But Mr. Johnston did not merely translate the Upanishads: those who knew him found in him a living commentary on his own commentaries on the Upanishads. Our debt to him is incalculable,—a debt which it is at once our privilege and our opportunity more than ever to set about repaying.
Others, qualified to do so, will write of the personal aspects of Mr. Johnston’s contributions to the Theosophical Movement. Here we shall survey, as best we may, the nature of his major literary contributions, made directly to the several magazines published by the Society itself, some of which have been republished in book form. With his manifold writings outside the publications of the Society, there will be no attempt to deal. With all of them, no matter how secular, went, in a special sense, something of Mr. Johnston’s spirit, something of his hold on the inner realities of life, so that the outside world is his debtor far more than can be estimated, because of what he put consciously into every paragraph he wrote, because of what, as an integral part of the Theosophical Movement, he was able to transmit.
Mr. Johnston joined the Theosophical Society in 1885,—as he wrote himself, “before that vital body had completed its tenth year.” His first article took the leading place in the December, 1886, issue of The Theosophist, when he was nineteen years old. A succession of articles followed, totalling 16 in all. He contributed 27 articles to Lucifer, beginning with the first volume, December, 1887, and continuing until the Society ceased to concern itself with that publication, which passed into alien hands. Five of these comprised his first translations from the Upanishads, while in addition there were eight half-pages of translated aphorisms. He contributed 15 articles to The Irish Theosophist; 20 to the Path; 8 to Theosophy in the less than two years of its brief existence; 53 translations in the series of Oriental Department Papers, all from the Sanskrit; 53 that have been identified in the Forum (where in the later volumes all articles were unsigned), of which 26 were translations; and 242 articles to the Theosophical Quarterly, from its first to the current volume, not including reviews, answers to questions, or his addresses reported during the sessions of Convention. This is an average of 8½ articles a year for the Quarterly, or more than two for each issue. The total number of articles is, therefore, about 434, of which 170 were translations, or an average of almost 10 articles a year for the 44 years he was writing for the Movement.
The leaven of Mr. Johnston’s work—his particular genius and gifts—is an everlasting portion of the Movement, an integral part of that “corner stone, the foundation of the future religions of humanity” which we have been told it has been the avowed plan of the Masters to lay since 1875. Such labours gave Mr. Johnston an undoubted right, among other things, to interpret “That Sanskrit Term Laziness,” and suggest the embodiment of a phrase from his own commentary on the Crest Jewel of Wisdom—the “larger might to toil”—which, as he pointed out, is a part of the attainment and privilege of Masters themselves. Translations, moreover, take at least twice as long to produce as an ordinary article, since the labour of translation comes first, and only then the shaping of this material into a proper form and unity.
In order to appreciate in some measure not merely the quantity, but the quality of this achievement, and the nature of the difficulties that Mr. Johnston had to overcome, especially in translating and interpreting the Upanishads, it might be well to glance for a moment, by way of contrast, at what is usually available outside our literature for the student of Theosophy, if he should wish to study these ancient scriptures.
The Upanishads are not dignified by a separate article in either the Encyclopædia Britannica or Chambers’ Encyclopædia. In the Britannica article on “Sanskrit,” by H. Julius Eggeling, Ph.D., Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology in Edinburgh University, and former secretary and librarian of the Royal Asiatic Society, there are three scattered paragraphs, and one sentence, on the Upanishads—about as much in all as on “X-Ray Treatment” or “Vulture,” and considerably less than on “Werwolf” or “Voting-Machines”. The isolated, introductory sentence reads: “The Upanishads, however, are of a purely speculative nature, and must be looked upon as the first attempts at a systematic treatment of metaphysical questions” (Vol. xxiv, p. 160). With this might be compared one out of many of Mr. Johnston’s characterizations:—
The Upanishads consist rather of a series of vivid intuitions of life than of a system of thought woven into philosophic completeness and continuity; and each of these intuitions of life, these perceptions of our high and divine relation to the endless universe, has a lasting and enduring truth that no completed system could have; has the lasting and enduring truth of high poetic inspiration, and not the conditional and limited truth of philosophic systems, which, though based on high inspiration, are yet elaborated and finished by the mind in a mood far below inspiration.—The Theosophy of the Upanishads, pp. 24-5; published in 1896.
The first paragraph in the Britannica, after estimating the age of the primitive Rig Veda hymns as having very probably extended “over the earlier half of the second millenary, or from about 2000 to 1500 B.C.,” with the later hymns to be dated since 1000 B.C., continues: “The Arthawana-upanishads, mostly composed in slokas, may be roughly divided into two classes, viz., those of a purely speculative or general pantheistic character, treating chiefly of the nature of the supreme spirit, and the means of attaining to union therewith, and those of a sectarian tendency. Of the former category, a limited number—such as the Prasna, Mundaka, and Mandukya-upanishads—have probably to be assigned to the later period of Vedic literature, while the others belong to post-Vedic times” (p. 167a). In other words, we are asked to believe that the earliest Upanishads were composed after 1000 B.C., and the later ones since Buddha’s time. With this might be compared an article by Mr. Johnston entitled “Indian Chronology” in the Forum (Vol. viii of the new series, May, 1902), where he discusses the current European misconceptions regarding Indian chronology:—
Many of the epochs of Indian History stretch back for thousands of years, the central point of all Indian Epic and tradition, the Mahabharata, or Great War, being dated almost exactly 5,000 years ago; while behind the Mahabharata War stretches a vast perspective; the ages of the Vedas, their Brahmanas, and the Upanishads; and even behind the Vedas, beyond the Rig-Veda’s earliest hymns, lie untold ages of India’s past, till that distant day, hidden in the mists of time, when the Aryan first descended from the Himalayan snows. Besides these traditional dates, we have a vast system of greater and lesser ages, of cycles with in cycles, stretching back for hundreds of thousands, and even millions of years, which form a distinctive feature in the Puranic epoch, and which, more than anything else, have proved unpalatable to European students of Sanskrit thought.
This is still evident in the recent Cambridge History of India, where in Volume 1, chapter v, which is by Professor A. Berriedale Keith. we read the positive statement that there is no evidence to determine an earlier date for the Upanishads than 1200 B.C.; and that the Brihadaranyaka and Chhandogya “are in all probability the oldest of the Upanishads,” so that these two, with the Kena and “with the possible exception of the Kathaka,” are the only ones that “can claim to be older than Buddhism” (p. 116). A sound historical sense seems as necessary here, as elsewhere, in modern scientific research.
Turning to the final characterization in the Britannica, we read (p. 177b): “In these treatises only the leading features of the pantheistic theory find utterance, generally in vague and mystic, though often in singularly powerful and poetical language, from which it is not always possible [italics ours] to extract the author’s real idea on fundamental points, such as the relation between the Supreme Spirit and the phenomenal world—whether the latter was actually evolved from the former by a power inherent in him, or whether the process is altogether a fiction, an illusion of the individual self”—and the writer illustrates by a quotation from the Chhandogya Upanishad (vi 2. I): “How could the existent be born from the non-existent?” to prove the uncertainty of the Upanishads themselves. Leaving aside the question as to how a treatise can be at once “vague and mystic” and at the same time “singularly powerful”—whether “generally” one, and then “often” the other, or not—which can probably only be solved by a strictly Western metaphysic, there is one obvious reason why “it is not always possible to extract the real idea on fundamental points,” and that is, that the Upanishad cited is misquoted. The text, in fine, states the exact opposite of the thesis the very words quoted are made to support. Max Müller translates this and the next sloka as follows (5. B. E., Vol. I, p. 93): “1. ‘In the beginning,’ my dear, ‘there was that only which is (τὸ ὁν), one only, without a second. Others say, in the beginning there was that only which is not (τὸ μὴ ὁν), one only, without a second; and from that which is not, that which is was born.’ 2. ‘But how could it be thus, my dear?’ the father continued. ‘How could that which is, be born of that which is not? No, my dear, only that which is, was in the beginning, one only, without a second.’” To take the question of the second verse: “How could that which is, be born of that which is not?”—which is put into the mouth of “others,” and which is only quoted to show how wrong is the idea of those “others” to the mind of the teacher in this Upanishad—and to use this question as evidence that the Upanishads taught confusedly what (certainly in this instance) is refuted, is astonishing exegesis. Moreover, the question of the second verse, which but repeats and paraphrases a statement of the first verse, and which is rendered in the Britannica, “How could the existent be born of the non-existent?”—this question is substituted in the Britannica for the direct statement of the first verse, though the reference given is to the first verse. But the question form was essential to support the thesis put forward in the Britannica. Mr. Johnston’s rendering of the two verses contrasts strikingly in ease of expression and clarity of thought: “Being, dear, was in the beginning, one, without a second. But there are some who say that non-Being was in the beginning, one, without a second, so that from non-Being, Being would be born. But how, indeed, dear, could this be so? How from non-Being could Being be born? said he; but in truth Being was in the beginning, dear, one, without a second” (Quarterly, xxiii, p. 352; the first translation appeared in Vol. II of the O.D. Papers, July and September, 1894). Moreover, Mr. Johnston’s commentary on these verses and those that follow meets precisely the philosophic difficulty raised in the Britannica. But that difficulty would seem to be a stock-in-trade criticism of the Upanishads by modern Sanskritists, for we find the Cambridge History of India (pp. 142-3) saying: “The Upanishads agree in regarding the absolute to be unknowable, and though they ascribe to it intelligence they deprive that term of meaning by emptying it of all thought. If the real is the absolute alone, the existence of the appearance of this world must be explained; but naturally enough the Upanishads do not successfully attempt this task. . . . The Upanishads were groping after truth and did not attempt to deduce all the consequences of their guesses at the nature of reality.”
We meet the same difficulties, the same limited outlook and negative attitude, in Max Müller’s and Professor Deussen’s works. It is as if the majority of European Sanskritists had deliberately closed certain doors in their own faces by refusing to believe tradition, or to credit Theosophy, the Wisdom Religion, not only with any rational basis, but for that matter, with any substantial existence at all; and then either prided themselves on their ingenuity in solving problems, or blandly announced that these were inexplicable. As a last resort there is an invariable appeal to “corrupt passages,” “interpolations,” and “primitive mentality”—the latter, we are to believe, flourishing about 800 to 600 B.C. In his Preface to the Sacred Books of the East, the first and fifteenth volumes of which contained his own translation and commentaries on the twelve Great Upanishads, Max Müller wrote: “Readers who have been led to believe that the Vedas of the Ancient Brahmans, the Avesta of the Zoroastrians, the Tripitaka of the Buddhists, the King of Confucius, or the Koran of Mohammed are books full of primeval wisdom and religious enthusiasm, or at least of sound and simple moral teaching, will be disappointed on consulting these volumes. Looking at many of the books that have lately been published on the religions of the ancient world, I do not wonder that such belief should have been raised; but I have long felt that it was high time to dispel such illusions, and to place the study of the ancient religions of the world on a more real and sound, on a more truly historical basis.” Let us compare this discouraging and typically modern approach with that of Mr. Johnston, in The Theosophist for March, 1889, ten years after Max Müller’s first volume on the Upanishads had appeared. and five years after his second:—
No event in the intellectual history of the nineteenth century is, perhaps, of so great importance, and likely to produce such fruitful results, as the arrival in the West of the sacred monuments of Indian thought, and the birth in Europe of that knowledge of Oriental thought and language which will ultimately render accessible to all who think and read the venerable philosophies of India, teeming with lofty conceptions of spiritual things, and unfailingly presenting to man the highest ideals of his nature and of his latent divinity. Coming as it did, at a critical period in Europe’s intellectual history, when the ecclesiastical fabric which had been laboriously constructed during centuries was already beginning to crumble and break to pieces, and when the tide of thought was inevitably driven to make a new advance, the lofty transcendental literature of India has already had, and will continue to have on the thought of Europe, a beneficent, sanative, and elevating influence.—“Sanskrit Study in the West,” p. 357.
Comparing these two points of view, there are those who still prefer to accept the guidance of “a student of the Upanishads, steeped in the golden air of Eastern Wisdom,” in the phrase of The Parables of the Kingdom, rather than that of one who does not even find in them “sound and simple moral teaching,” let alone “primeval wisdom and religious enthusiasm”. To modern scholarship there was. and could have been, no Ancient Wisdom, accumulated and handed down throughout the “prehistoric” ages, and this assumption (for there is no proof against it) strikes at the root of the matter. Without this key, which Theosophy, and Indian tradition, supply, the difficulties are such that it is true, and will continue to be true, that “it is not always possible to extract the real idea on fundamental points”. This is the case even with the clearest, and most generally sympathetic treatment of the Upanishads which the writer has seen, that of the Rev. Dr. A. S. Geden in Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. xii, s. v., several pages; 1921).
Mr. Johnston was fully aware of the difficulties enumerated above, and he had already met and answered them some twenty-seven years before in The Path (Vol. viii, January, 1894):—
Students of Oriental Theosophy, which finds its highest expression in the Ten Upanishads, are met at the outset by a serious difficulty which has proved a real stumbling-block in the way of many earnest disciples, and has almost completely veiled the true meaning of these most ancient mystical books for all who have approached them in a purely literary or philological spirit.
This serious difficulty, which is caused by the symbolism of the Upanishads, requires two qualifications for its solution: first, some knowledge at first hand of the interior truths and realities represented by these symbols; and secondly, a certain acquaintance with the symbology of the great religions of antiquity. This ancient symbology is marked by such a uniformity in countries and times as widely separated as those which gave birth to the Vedas and the Book of Job, the Mysteries of Osiris and the Apocalypse, that, in view of these resemblances, not only is one led to infer an identity of inspiration underlying all ancient symbolism, but also that an acquaintance with the method of expression of one ancient faith will often give clear insight into the darkest passages of another.
The source of this original identity of inspiration is not far to seek: (for all of the ancient religions treat of the same subject, the mysteries of the interior development of man, and the understanding of the universe that is reached in the course of that interior development. It is evident that a complete and exhaustive understanding of the ancient scriptures and the mysteries of inner life which are hidden beneath their symbols can be attained only by those whose inner unfoldment has gone so far as to identify them with the spirit in which these ancient scriptures were written, the universal spirit of wisdom and goodness. But though a complete understanding of the whole meaning of books like the Upanishads is thus impossible for all but the highest and holiest Sages, one cannot follow the path of interior development, of the inner light, with earnestness and integrity, without gaining some insight into the hidden meaning of the symbols; and this, added to an acquaintance wth other scriptures, may make clear much that seemed hopelessly obscure.
In such a light, the criteria of manuscript authority and philology fade into relative insignificance,—as M r. Johnston wrote elsewhere, his purpose in translating was “to seize rather the spirit than the mould, the crystallized limitation of spirit; to deal with ideas and ideals rather than with systems and words”. These pregnant sentences show how fully Mr. Johnston, then twenty-six years old, had entered into the teaching and instruction of Madame Blavatsky and of Mr. Judge.
In the Secret Doctrine (1st ed., I, 269ff.), H. P. B. had written:—
The Books of the Vedanta (the last word of human knowledge) give out but the metaphysical aspect of this world-Cosmogony; and their priceless thesaurus, the Upanishads—Upa-ni-shad being a compound word meaning “the conquest of ignorance by the revelation of secret, spiritual knowledge”—require now the additional possession of a Master-key to enable the student to get at their full meaning. The reason for this I venture to state here as I learned it from a Master. [Mr. Judge called special attention to this direct statement, and to the paragraphs that followed it.]
The name, “Upanishads,” is usually translated “esoteric doctrine”. These treatises form part of the Sruti or “revealed knowledge,” Revelation, in short, and are generally attached to the Brahmana portion of the Vedas, as their third division. There are over 150 Upanishads enumerated by, and known to, Orientalists, who credit the oldest with being written probably about 600 years B.C.; but of genuine texts there does not exist a fifth of the munber. The Upanishads are to the Vedas what the Kabala is to the Jewish Bible. They treat of and expound the secret and mystical meaning of the Vedic texts. They speak of the origin of the Universe, the nature of Deity, and of Spirit and Soul, as also of the metaphysical connection of mind and matter. In a few words: They contain the beginning and the end of all human knowledge, but they have now ceased to reveal it, since the day of Buddha. If it were otherwise, the Upanishads could not be called esoteric, since they are now openly attached to the Sacred Brahmanical books, which have, in our present age, become accessible even to the Mlechchhas (out-castes) and the European Orientalists. . . . They were complete in those days, and were used for the instruction of the chêlas who were preparing for their initiation.
This lasted so long as the Vedas and the Brahmanas remained in the sole and exclusive keeping of the temple-Brahmins—while no one else had the right to study or even read them outside the sacred caste. Then came Gautama, the Prince of Kapilavastu. After learning the whole of the Brahmanical wisdom in the Rahasya or the Upanishads, and finding that the teachings differed little, if at all, from those of the “Teachers of Life” inhabiting the snowy ranges of the Himalaya, the Disciple of the Brahmins, feeling indignant because the sacred wisdom was thus withheld from all but the Brahmins, determined to save the whole world by popularizing it. Then it was that the Brahmins, seeing that their sacred knowledge and Occult wisdom was falling into the hands of the “Mlechchhas,” abridged the texts of the Upanishads, originally containing thrice the matter of the Vedas and the Brahmanas together, without altering, however, one word of the texts. They simply detached from the MSS. the most important portions containing the last word of the Mystery of Being. The key to the Brahmanical secret code remained henceforth with the initiates alone, and the Brahmins were thus in a position to publicly deny the correctness of Buddha’s teaching by appealing to their Upanishads, silenced forever on the chief questions. Such is the esoteric tradition beyond the Himalayas.
This was written in 1888, the year Mr. Johnston began his translations. It is worthy of note that powerful opposition came again, and almost at once, from the Brahmins, when the Masters, through H. P. B., began anew to reveal “the esoteric lining of that which is contained in almost all the exoteric Scriptures of the world-religions—pre-eminently in the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads of the Vedas and even in the Puranas” (S. D., I, 165; cf. Quarterly, xxvii, p. 1 ff., “The Ideal Brahman” by Mr. Johnston; and xxviii, p. 314 ff., “Letters From W. Q. Judge”).
It was in November, 1893, that Mr. Judge enlisted Mr. Johnston for the task of translating systematically, and commenting upon, the Upanishads, and Shankara Acharya, for the benefit of the American Oriental Department Papers, which Mr. Judge published. In his notice of this to members of the American Section, T. S., and to subscribers, Mr. Judge concluded by saying: “The Oriental ideal is that the student should know the book by heart; the western is, ‘Oh I read that before’. The readers should know the ideas by heart, not the words; this is the medium course.”
In the last sentence lies a message to-day for us. We have the matured fruit of Mr. Johnston’s life-long toil. The pages of the Quarterly, and his published volumes, provide the western student with the choicest selections from that great Eastern store-house, cast in finished literary form, and interpreted by one whose work will endure because it has about it intimations of immortality. It is a poignant thought to those who have read many times his recurring commentaries on “King Death and Nachiketas”—in the Path, in The Song of Life, in the Quarterly—that he has himself once again gone to face that “Great Initiator”. But what he wrote in The Irish Theosophist when Mr. Judge died—instinct as it is with the spirit of the Upanishads—reveals how far that initiation can only mean for him a new step forward, as it also shows us how we may follow after him along the Path:—
It is part of the strange, deceptive quality of things, that nothing should teach us so much of life, nothing should so much open our eyes to the grandeur and limitless possibility of life, as death, which is called the cessation of life. . . .
There is—in a few souls vividly manifest, in many souls dimly felt, and in all souls at least dimly suspected—a quality of high reality which, when we meet and touch it, brings with it a keen sense of eternalness, of something that really is, and therefore cannot cease to be. This profoundly real light is the best gift the highest souls have to offer us; and the moment of testing the value of the gift, is the moment of their death.
When that death has come, and we know quite certainly that we shall not by any possibility see them again in life, there comes to us—if we have fitly received their gift of light—a keen and lucid sense of the closeness to us of that eternal part in them which we had felt during life; and, with it, a knowledge that this is the reality of our friend, not the outward form, faded by the waste of mortality. And that new reality—new, because not known before in its pure and isolated nature—has won a new world for us. For what we feel, close to us, is not in this world, as men speak of this world; nor does it approach us from the side of this world, or in the manner of this world, but in a new and hitherto inexperienced way, which we know to be not of this world, but of the mysteriously shining, mysteriously hidden world of death. In that newly gained world we have now a certain possession, a possession not of the dead, but of the living. More than that, as we cannot perceive the things of the real world in any way but by becoming them, by recognizing our real oneness with them; so, in thus gaining a possession in the kingdom of death, we really become, in a sense, at one with the kingdom of death, and, thus becoming death, we find that death is—life. . . .
For this very reason, perhaps, it is necessary that just those souls in whom we have felt most of reality, most of eternalness, should disappear from us into the darkness, in order that we may learn that our friend is there; in order that we may learn that the vanishing and dissipation of the outward, visible part, is no impairing or detriment to the real part, which is invisible.
This knowledge, and the realization of it in our wills, are gained with the utmost difficulty, at a cost not less than the loss of the best of our friends; yet, if the cost be great, the gain is great and beyond estimating, for it is nothing less than a first victory over the whole universe, wherein we come to know that there is that in us which can face and conquer and outlast anything in the universe, and come forth radiant and triumphant from the contest. Yet neither the universe nor death are real antagonists, for they are both only Life everywhere, and we are Life.