There are not in the West half a dozen among the fervent hundreds who call themselves "occultists," who have even an approximately correct idea of the nature of the science they seek to master. With a few exceptions, they are all on the highway to sorcery. Let them restore some order in the chaos that reigns in their minds, before they protest against this statement. Let them first learn the true relation in which the occult sciences stand to occultism, and the difference between the two, and then feel wrathful if they still think themselves right. Meanwhile, let them learn that occultism differs from magic and other secret sciences as the glorious sun does from a rushlight, as the immutable and immortal spirit of Man -- the reflection of the absolute, causeless, and unknowable ALL -- differs from the mortal clay, the human body.
In our highly civilized West, where modern languages have been formed, and words coined, in the wake of ideas and thoughts -- as happened with every tongue -- the more the latter became materialized in the cold atmosphere of Western selfishness and its incessant chase after the goods of this world, the less was there any need felt for the production of new terms to express that which was tacitly regarded as obsolete and exploded superstition. Such words could answer only to ideas which a cultured man was scarcely supposed to harbor in his mind. Magic, a synonym for jugglery; sorcery, an equivalent for crass ignorance; and occultism, the sorry relic of crackbrained, medieval Fire-philosophers, of the Jacob Boehmes and the St. Martins, are expressions believed more than amply sufficient to cover the whole field of "thimble-rigging." They are terms of contempt, and used generally only in reference to the dross and residues of the Dark Ages and its preceding aeons of paganism. Therefore have we no terms in the English tongue to define and shade the difference between such abnormal powers, or the sciences that lead to the acquisition of them, with the nicety possible in the Eastern languages -- preeminently the Sanskrit.
There are four (out of the many other) names of the various kinds of esoteric knowledge or sciences given, even in the exoteric Puranas. There is (1) Yajna-vidya, knowledge of the occult powers awakened in nature by the performance of certain religious ceremonies and rites. (2) Maha-vidya, the "great knowledge," the magic of the Kabbalists and of the Tantrika worship, often sorcery of the worst description. (3) Guhya-vidya, knowledge of the mystic powers residing in sound (ether), hence in the mantras (chanted prayers or incantations), and depending on the rhythm and melody used; in other words a magical performance based on knowledge of the forces of nature and their correlation; and (4) ATMA-VIDYA, a term which is translated simply "knowledge of the soul," true wisdom by the Orientalists, but which means far more.
This last is the only kind of occultism that any . . . who would be wise and unselfish ought to strive after. All the rest is some branch of the occult sciences, i.e., arts based on the knowledge of the ultimate essence of all things in the kingdom of nature -- such as minerals, plants, and animals -- hence of things pertaining to the realm of material nature, however invisible that essence may be, and howsoever much it has hitherto eluded the grasp of science. Alchemy, astrology, occult physiology, chiromancy exist in nature, and the exact sciences perhaps so called because they are found in this age of paradoxical philosophies the reverse -- have already discovered not a few of the secrets of the above arts. But clairvoyance, symbolized in India as the "Eye of Siva," called in Japan "Infinite Vision," is NOT hypnotism, the illegitimate son of mesmerism, and is not to be acquired by such arts. All the others may be mastered and results obtained, whether good, bad, or indifferent; but Atma-vidya sets small value on them. It includes them all, and may even use them occasionally, but it does so after purifying them of their dross, for beneficent purposes, and taking care to deprive them of every element of selfish motive. Let us explain: any man or woman can set himself or herself to study one or all of the above specified occult arts without any great previous preparation, and even without adopting any too restraining mode of life. One could even dispense with any lofty standard of morality. In the last case, of course, ten to one the student would blossom into a very decent kind of sorcerer, and tumble down headlong into black magic.
Occultism is not magic. It is comparatively easy to learn the trick of spells and the methods of using the subtler, but still material, forces of physical nature; the powers of the animal soul in man are soon awakened; the forces which his love, his hate, his passion, can call into operation, are readily developed. But this is black magic -- sorcery. For it is the motive, and the motive alone, which makes any exercise of power become black, malignant, or white, beneficent magic. It is impossible to employ spiritual forces if there is the slightest tinge of selfishness remaining in the operator. For, unless the intention is entirely unalloyed, the spiritual will transform itself into the psychic, act on the astral plane, and dire results may be produced by it. The powers and forces of animal nature can equally be used by the selfish and revengeful, as by the unselfish and the all-forgiving; the powers and forces of spirit lend themselves only to the perfectly pure in heart -- and this is DIVINE MAGIC.
But the interest of our readers will probably center on those who are invincibly attracted towards the occult, yet who neither realize the true nature of what they aspire towards, nor have they become passion-proof, far less truly unselfish.
How about these unfortunates, we shall be asked, who are thus rent in twain by conflicting forces? For it has been said too often to need repetition, and the fact itself is patent to any observer, that when once the desire for occultism has really awakened in a man's heart, there remains for him no hope of peace, no place of rest and comfort in all the world. He is driven out into the wild and desolate spaces of life by an ever-gnawing unrest he cannot quell. His heart is too full of passion and selfish desire to permit him to pass the golden gate; he cannot find rest or peace in ordinary life. Must he then inevitably fall into sorcery and black magic, and through many incarnations heap up for himself a terrible karma? Is there no other road for him?
Indeed there is, we answer. Let him aspire to no higher than he feels able to accomplish. Let him not take a burden upon himself too heavy for him to carry. Without ever becoming a mahatma, a buddha, or a great saint, let him study the philosophy and the "science of soul," and he can become one of the modest benefactors of humanity, without any superhuman powers. Siddhis (or the arhat powers) are only for those who are able to "lead the life," to comply with the terrible sacrifices required for such a training, and to comply with them to the very letter. Let them know at once and remember always, that true occultism or theosophy is the "great renunciation of SELF," unconditionally and absolutely, in thought as in action. It is ALTRUISM "Not for himself, but for the world, he lives."
How then can it be thought possible for a man to enter the "strait gate" of occultism when his daily and hourly thoughts are bound up with worldly things, desires of possession and power, with lust, ambition, and duties, which, however honorable, are still of the earth earthy? . . . he who would profit by the wisdom of the universal mind, has to reach it through the whole of humanity without distinction of race, complexion, religion, or social status. It is altruism, not egoism even in its most legal and noble conception, that can lead the unit to merge its little self in the universal selves. It is to these needs and to this work that the true disciple of true occultism has to devote himself, if he would obtain theo-sophy, divine wisdom and knowledge.
And, although it is the intention that decides primarily whether white or black magic is exercised, yet the results even of involuntary, unconscious sorcery cannot fail to be productive of bad karma. Enough has been said to show that sorcery is any kind of evil influence exercised upon other persons, who suffer, or make other persons suffer, in consequence. Karma is a heavy stone splashed in the quiet waters of life; and it must produce ever widening circles of ripples, carried wider and wider, almost ad infinitum. Such causes produced have to call forth effects, and these are evidenced in the just laws of retribution.
Much of this may be avoided if people will only abstain from rushing into practices neither the nature nor importance of which they understand. No one is expected to carry a burden beyond his strength and powers. There are natural-born magicians; mystics and occultists by birth, and by right of direct inheritance from a series of incarnations and aeons of suffering and failures. These are passion-proof, so to say. No fires of earthly origin can fan into a flame any of their senses or desires; no human voice can find response in their souls, except the great cry of humanity. These only may be certain of success. But they can be met only far and wide, and they pass through the narrow gates of occultism because they carry no personal luggage of human transitory sentiments along with them. They have got rid of the feeling of the lower personality, . . . and the golden, but narrow gate is thrown open before them. Not so with those who have to carry yet for several incarnations the burden of sins committed in previous lives, and even in their present existence. For such, unless they proceed with great caution, the golden gate of wisdom may get transformed into the wide gate and the broad way "that leadeth unto destruction," and therefore "many be they that enter in thereby." This is the gate of the occult arts, practiced for selfish motives and in the absence of the restraining and beneficent influence of ATMA-VIDYA.
We are in the Kali Yuga and its fatal influence is a thousandfold more powerful in the West than it is in the East; hence the easy preys made by the powers of the Age of Darkness in this cyclic struggle, and the many delusions under which the world is now laboring. One of these is the relative facility with which men fancy they can get at the "gate" and cross the threshold of occultism without any great sacrifice. It is the dream of [those] inspired by desire for power and personal selfishness, and it is not such feelings that can ever lead them to the coveted goal. For, as well said by one believed to have sacrificed himself for humanity -- "Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life" eternal, and therefore "few there be that find it."
(Condensed from a series of articles written by H. P. Blavatsky in 1887-8 for her magazine Lucifer, available in book form as Studies in Occultism; from Sunrise magazine, October/November 1983. Copyright © 1983 by Theosophical University Press)