The Solar System: Perspectives from Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science

By Andrew Rooke

Part 1: The Sun and the Inner Planets

For or untold millennia man has stared into the beauty of the night sky and asked ageless questions about his place in the universal plan. By crackling campfire or radio telescope, the questions are the same. Who am I? How does our home planet fit into the glittering pattern of the stars? Is there life out there in the seeming abyss of space? Sages of old from around the globe provided clues to these hidden mysteries from their explorations of inner space. Over the past twenty years of outer space exploration, astrophysics has approached many teachings of the ancient wisdom, theosophy, regarding the nature of our universe -- though further intriguing questions still remain to challenge future generations of questing souls.

According to theosophy every mathematical point in the universe is vibrant with life. The stars and their families of planets are divine beings expressing themselves through titanic forces and myriad forms, now being catalogued by science. Astronomers and physicists observe that the universe displays exquisite balance. To some this bespeaks the presence of consciousness and intelligence in energies and forms beyond the wildest dreams of science fiction. The universe is an apparently huge organism with many hierarchies and kingdoms of life cooperating in a grand march forward.

Initiates of the Mysteries have stated that even the most developed intelligences on earth can penetrate inner and outer space only within the limits of our solar system. So let us confine ourselves to the wonders of our solar universe. As we undertake our fantastic journey, let us remember that the small mirrors the great throughout nature, that the structure and operations of an atom or a cell can give us a clue to the functions of the solar system and to what lies beyond, the abyss of interstellar space.

New technologies developed during World War II heralded the present age of space exploration. Since October 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik as man's first known artificial satellite, advances have been rapid. American and Russian scientists have launched a wide variety of spacecraft to measure radiation belts around the earth, track global weather patterns, measure X rays and gamma rays from the sun and other stars in the galaxy. They have landed spacecraft on Mars and Venus, revealing the hidden face of planets that for centuries had been a mystery to earth-based astronomers. Neil Armstrong's "one small step . . ." on the moon in July 1969 ushered in the age of interplanetary exploration. In the '70s and '80s the Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager spacecraft have taken us to the outer limits of our home universe, with Voyager II due to visit Neptune in August 1989 and sail gently beyond into interstellar space.

Science knows the solar system as an orderly community of nine planets, 54 moons (including the 10 moons circling Uranus discovered in 1986), and myriads of asteroids, comets, and other smaller bodies, many of them sweeping in regular orbits around the sun. As stars go, our sun is not particularly large, but in comparison with the planets it is enormous, with a diameter of approximately 864,000 miles -- 9.75 times that of the largest planet, Jupiter. Jupiter and Saturn in turn are gargantuan compared to the other planets, having diameters respectively more than 11 and 9 times that of earth. The distances between the sun and the outer planets are almost beyond imagination with Pluto, at aphelion, being nearly 3-7 billion miles from the sun. Still farther out, at a distance of one light-year (approximately 5.87 trillion miles) from the sun, a swarm of comets is believed to enclose the solar universe like the permeable skin of a cell (the Oort cloud) [cf K. Frazier, Solar System, Planetary Earth Series, pp. 36, 40.].

The beautiful and sometimes forbidding photographs taken by modem spacecraft come alive as the words of ancient sages regarding the seven (or twelve) sacred planets echo in the recesses of our consciousness. Theosophical writers state that the solar system is alive with many more planets and suns than are visible or known to science. These planets and suns are invisible to us because they exist on planes of cosmic matter either above or below the level of our perceptions. The seven planets with which the destiny of our earth is most closely connected are called the Seven Sacred Planets. They are Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun (standing as a substitute for an invisible planet very near the sun, sometimes referred to as Vulcan), Venus, Mercury, and the Moon (also a substitute for an invisible planet). These planets are sacred to us because they, as conscious entities, cooperate in the building and subsequent evolutionary history of the earth. There is a constant and orderly circulation of electromagnetism among the various planets "by and through individual consciousnesses, whether these be gods, monads, souls, or atoms, working in and through and in fact composing the various elements" of which these worlds are built [G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 204-5.]. Through these circulations the kingdoms of life are sustained by the sevenfold spiritual and other powers of the sun. Further, over vast periods of time, the monadic energies embodying in the various kingdoms circulate among the seven sacred planets, following their destined pathways.

Let us now launch forth upon our journey from the portals of the sun to the twilight zone of the Oort cloud, noting recent discoveries about our solar universe in the light of theosophic teaching.

THE SUN: Ancient peoples around the world revered the sun as the living heart and benign ruler of its family of planets and their myriad lives. Modern scientific discoveries and theorems speak of forces and wonders befitting the glorious raiments of a solar divinity. In the 1980s most scientists believe the sun to be a self-sustaining nuclear furnace powered by the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium exactly balanced by the compression of the sun's mass due to gravity. Changes in the sun's magnetic field over 11 and 22-year cycles are believed to create sunspots: gigantic rents or openings through which solar flares arc thousands of miles into space. Many stars, including our sun, pulsate like huge bells, each ringing its own note in the "music of the spheres."

The ancient wisdom indicates that the sun is a self-sustaining energy source for the visible and invisible kingdoms that teem within its domain. It is at once the living heart and brain of its kingdom, beating in an 11-year cycle, issuing streams of life force through the sunspots via its circulatory system. Confirming ancient myths, theosophy restates that the visible sun is but the reflection of a bright celestial entity or god. This solar divinity pours forth its life forces from the inner planes of its being, sustaining and providing an arena of experience for myriads of evolving entities over vast periods of time. This sacred truth was beautifully epitomized by the bards of ancient India in their Invocation to the Sun, the Gayatri:

Unveil, O Thou who givest sustenance to the Universe, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return,
That face of the true sun now hidden by a vase of golden light,
That we may see the truth and do our whole duty on our journey to thy sacred seat. (paraphrase)

VULCAN: Theosophy teaches that one of the sacred planets has its orbit between Mercury, the innermost planet recognized by astronomers, and the sun. For long ages this planet has been invisible to us but in future, as we grow in spiritual perception, it may become more visible. It is claimed to have been observed once by the French country doctor and amateur astronomer Lescarbault on March 28, 1859. The French astronomer Le Verrier investigated 50 sightings whereof he considered 6 to be reliable. In 1878 U.S. astronomers also saw a dark body transiting the face of the sun. Many astronomers now dispute these sightings, attributing them to asteroids which occasionally transit the sun. However, other evidence, such as perturbations of the orbit of Mercury, suggests that there may indeed be an intramercurial planet, one of the many invisible worlds of the solar universe postulated by theosophy.

MERCURY: according to G. de Purucker the distance of a planet from the sun is an indicator of its evolutionary status. "The basic rule is as follows: the nearer the sun, the more advanced is the planet in its evolution, and consequently the more evolved is its burden of living beings" [op. cit., p. 327]. Space science confirms that the nearer the planets are to the sun the denser and more consolidated they are compared to the massive and largely gaseous outer planets. Mercury, the closest observable planet to the sun, was the subject of intense scrutiny by the Mariner 10 spacecraft in March 1974. Mariner's cameras revealed a bare, rocky, heavily cratered planet with a density similar to that of Earth. Other instruments indicated that Mercury suffers searing midday temperatures as high as 800 F (hot enough to melt zinc!), while lows on the dark side can plunge to -300 F.

In many nations of antiquity, Mercury was closely associated with the after-death teachings of the Mysteries. The Greeks called it Hermes, guide of mystics and conductor of souls to the Underworld. In theosophy Mercury, being so close to the sun, is said to be emerging from a long period of rest into its last or seventh round of life experience.

VENUS: Mystics and astronomers speak of Venus as Earth's "twin," and theosophy sees a close kinship between them. Mythographers and poets through the ages have waxed lyrical about our bright morning and evening "star." Soviet spacecraft Venera 7 in 1970, U.S. Mariner 10 in 1974, and four Soviet landings in 1975 and 1982 give us a picture of an inhospitable world: daytime temperatures of 900 F; thick clouds of carbon dioxide and sulphuric acid rains beating on the bare rocky surface with a pressure 90 times Earth's atmosphere! The U.S. spacecraft Pioneer Venus, orbiting the planet in 1978, mapped its surface through the obscuring clouds and revealed that Venus has a landscape not unlike Earth's, but that its oceans have long since disappeared. Huge volcanoes dominate an enormous valley at the equator and in the northern hemisphere a gigantic volcano towers 36,000 feet above a parched plain.

Though Venus may seem the antithesis of a life-bearing world we should at least remain receptive to the idea that each planet has its own evolutionary history and may have evolved forms of life in what, to us, is a deathly environment. Thus it is said in theosophical literature that Venus is inhabited by highly intelligent entities as much at home in their atmosphere as we are in ours; and that it is currently in its seventh round of planetary experience whereas Earth is in its fourth round.

EARTH AND MOON: From the sulphuric acid rains and the searing heat of Venus, what a relief it is to greet the blue oceans and warm green forests of our Mother Earth. The ancient wisdom teaches that the earth is stalked by a ghostly remnant of its former embodiment, the moon. The moon has been intensively studied by spacecraft, and a series of manned landings in the 1960s and early 1970s confirm what theosophy tells us, that it is a dead world in the process of slow disintegration. Lunar emanations pour earthward and profoundly influence growth and decay of life on Earth, as testified by the mythologies of the ancient world. Orbiting close to the moon is another invisible planet, sometimes called the Eighth Sphere or Planet of Death. This planet is too dense for us to see, and serves as a receptacle of negative influences from Earth, not unlike the sewerage and drainage systems of a great city [op. cit., "The Planet of Death," pp. 346-9].

Our journey has taken us to the limits of the inner solar system. Outside Earth lie Mars and the giant gaseous planets and cometary remnants of the formation of our solar universe. As we stare in awe at the wonders of our neighboring worlds recorded in dramatic photographs by our spacecraft, we gain new perspectives on our problems here on Earth. Our individual concerns retreat into proportion before the mighty and timeless works of universal Nature. We can be humble yet exalted, knowing that we have our rightful place amid the wondrous brotherhood twinkling in the night sky.

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Part 2: The Outer Planets

In the October/November Sunrise we saw that the ancient wisdom and modern science each in its own way affirms the beauty and wonder of our solar system. In the past twenty years the epic voyages of tiny spacecraft have immeasurably extended our knowledge of the solar universe. However, just as we cannot fully understand the poetry of a rainbow in terms of the physical laws of its being, the ancient wisdom teaches that untold mysteries lie behind the pictures pouring earthward from the outer reaches of space. We now continue our voyage outward beyond earth's orbit to the limits of the solar universe, briefly discussing recent scientific discoveries in the light of the ancient wisdom.

MARS: Beloved of science fiction writers, Mars has been envisaged as the home of an advanced civilization of earth-type served by what seems, through the home telescope, to be a well-ordered system of irrigation canals. Mariner 4 in 1965 and its successors Mariner 9 in 1971 and the Mars landing craft Vikings 1 and 2 in 1976 revealed a desolate landscape blasted by massive planet-wide sandstorms. Above the swirling sands preside huge volcanoes towering up to 78,000 feet over a shattered landscape. There is evidence that water once existed on Mars with streams and ancient rivers, now long silent, probably frozen into permafrost beneath the rocky surface. (Michael H. Carr, "Water on Mars," Nature, vol. 326, 5 March, 1987, pp. 30-5.) The Mariner and Viking pictures of Mars show a landscape strikingly similar to our own desert regions on earth which once teemed with life and great civilizations. As nature works in cycles of activity and rest, centers of civilization may lie fallow as deserts or beneath the oceans in order to regenerate, awaiting a new influx of entities at the appropriate time. Theosophy teaches that Mars is currently between life-waves as the majority of its inhabitants have moved to another, to us invisible, sphere of the planet's constitution. The blood-red deserts lie sleeping in "obscuration" until incoming life-waves initiate the dawning of a new round of planetary life.

THE ASTEROID BELT: Beyond Mars lies a belt of planetoids (asteroids) and cosmic dust particles varying in size from microscopic to many miles in diameter. The current scientific theory is that tidal forces from the outer planets, mainly Jupiter, prevent the formation of a planet. G. de Purucker suggests that in the far future asteroids will help to form a new planet:

Now when the planet-to-be shall have reached a sufficient degree of physicalization, it will slowly gather unto itself most of these erratic asteroidal wanderers around our sun, and they will thus help to build up its future physical body. -- Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 338-9

JUPITER: The asteroids guard the limits of the sun's inner family of planets. Beyond them lie the massive ethereal planets of the outer solar system, about which little was known until Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched in 1977. These are still venturing bravely into the outer solar system. In March and July 1979, Voyagers 1 and 2 took the first close-up photographs of the sun's largest planet and its retinue of 16 moons. Both theosophy and astronomy agree that Jupiter is much like a miniature sun whose nuclear fires never ignited. It is also self-luminous in degree. Jupiter is formed of roughly the same elements as the sun, about 90% hydrogen and 10% helium, with an atmosphere wracked by massive storms, the largest of which, the intriguing Great Red Spot, is three times the size of earth.

The Voyagers discovered that Jupiter has a thin dust ring, and beyond it a family of moons each with its own strange story. Io, the innermost large moon, is the most volcanically active body known in the solar system, throwing enormous plumes, i90 miles high, of volcanic material which falls in geyser-like showers on its surface. Europa appears like a cracked egg with a hard rocky core covered with shattered ice fields. Farther from Jupiter, Callisto presents an icy face
ravaged with craters whilst Ganymede, the largest moon in the entire solar system, is scarred with canal-like valleys, cracked and sundered by huge quakes at the dawn of the solar system's life. (K. Frazier, ed., Solar System, Planet Earth Series, ch. 4: "Gas Giants and Iceballs," pp. 115-33.)

These fantastic images are complemented by the few hints we have from theosophy on the hidden character of Jupiter, which is said to be less evolved than the inner planets. Though physically more ethereal than the earth, in the far future Jupiter will become more materially consolidated than the earth is today. At the present time it is almost at the end of the fire-stage of its evolution, and is approaching the "critical line dividing that from the element of air." (Fountain-Source, p. 334). Huge fiery aeriform entities float in its atmosphere and, at the Great Red Spot, "swarm like bees" around an area influenced by a powerful "Raja sun" which at present is blocked from our view (cf. The Dialogues of G. de Purucker (1948) 2:171-3).

SATURN: Leaving Jupiter behind by July 1979, the two Voyager spacecraft pressed on towards their Saturn encounters in November 1980 and August 1981. They sent back breathtaking views of the planet and her enigmatic and transcendently beautiful braiding of rings. In many ways Saturn proved to be a smaller version of Jupiter with a violent atmosphere of hydrogen and helium with ammonia clouds coursing about the planet at speeds up to 1100 miles per hour!

Beyond the stifling confusion of Saturn's atmosphere, the majestic ring system wheels in ever-changing patterns to a distance of I71,000 miles above the turbulent cloud tops. This is the very diffuse E-ring, way out at Enceladus' orbit. The Voyagers found that the rings were formed of trillions of ice particles or "snow" and traversed by unexplained ray-like spokes crossing Saturn's middle ring. A pair of tiny "shepherd" moons keep the narrow F-ring intact and in places the particles are twisted and braided like delicate thread. (The F-ring is about 50,000 miles above the cloud tops. The rings are not named in alphabetic order according to their distance from the planet) Beyond the shepherd moons the Voyagers discovered a pair of co-orbiting moons performing an intricately choreographed "dance," taking turns in catching up with one another and exchanging orbits without collision. Farther still lies Saturn's family of major moons, each with its own mysteries: pockmarked Mimas with its gargantuan impact crater rimmed by cliffs six miles high; Enceladus, which is believed to have had volcanoes spewing water-ice droplets into space; Tethys, a heavily cratered iceball; Dione and Rhea, enigmatically having one bright hemisphere and the other dark; and, strangest of all, Titan, the second largest moon in the solar system, whose thick smoggy atmosphere is thought to hide a global ocean of liquid methane dotted with islands of water ice. Planetary astronomer Carl Sagan and Cornell University colleagues popularized earlier experiments which indicated that Titan's clouds contain many of the building blocks of life, and that conditions on Titan might be similar to those of the primeval earth at the dawn of its life.

The paradoxes presented by the Voyager photographs reflect the teachings of theosophy regarding the ringed planet. Saturn is the outermost and therefore the youngest of the seven sacred planets. While physically the most ethereal of the sacred planets, its essential character is yet far more material than the earth's. Mythologically, Saturn is closely connected with the earth, and this may explain why we can see its rings. According to theosophy all planets have meteoric veils surrounding them which protect them from the titanic forces of the sun. These immense veils or "meteoric continents" probably correspond to what astrophysicists call magnetospheres. Within them are the ring systems, which the Voyager spacecraft photographed around Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. In theosophic writings it is said that the Saturnian rings act as stepping stones or transformers for the rivers of lives flowing along the circulations of the cosmos to embody and disembody on Saturn (op. cit. 1, 7-8).

URANUS, NEPTUNE, PLUTO, AND THE OORT CLOUD: In January 1986, Voyager 2 passed through the Uranian system giving us our first detailed pictures of this fascinating planet and especially of her retinue of moons. (E. C. Stone and E. D. Miner, "The Voyager 2 Encounter with the Uranian System," Science (233:47 59), July 4,1986, pp. 39-43.) Scientists await similarly exciting views of Neptune, expected in August 1989 before Voyager 2 presses bravely on towards the Oort cloud, the veil of comets surrounding the solar system, which the spacecraft will blindly reach more than 10,000 years from now.

Voyager 2's brilliant pictures of Uranus, its ring system and moons, indicate that the planet is bathed in a dense atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, with blue-green methane haze. Surely the oddest feature of Uranus is that it lies on its side with the polar regions facing the sun alternately for 42-year periods of sunlight and darkness. Uranus has a complex ring system with shepherd moons like Saturn's and five major moons with bizarre features named after characters from Shakespeare's The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream: Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel (a sprite in Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock), Titania, and Oberon. Earth-based observations of Neptune indicate that it is similar to Uranus, being primarily gaseous with a thick atmosphere and methane clouds. Neptune has two moons, Triton and Nereid, with highly irregular orbits, leading scientists to speculate that Triton may actually be torn apart by Neptune's gravity within a short period of solar time.

Little is known of Pluto, nearly 3.7 billion miles from the sun and 900 million miles beyond Neptune at aphelion. It appears to be relatively dense compared to the other outer planets, has an atmosphere and a single moon discovered in 1978 and named Charon after the boatman who ferried the dead across the River Styx to the Greek Underworld, the realm of Pluto.

In theosophy Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto differ from the sacred planets which latter are closely related with the destiny of earth. They do not strictly belong to our solar system, but have been captured by the gravitational energy of the sun. Although Uranus belongs to our "universal solar system," and is intimately linked with the destiny of the sun, Neptune, and perhaps Pluto, ventured into the outer reaches of our system, possibly during the chaos of solar and planetary formation billions of years ago (cf. Fountain-Source, pp. 324-5). Theosophists compare this process with the micro-universe of the atom that captures and discards electrons. Similarly, Neptune, and perhaps Pluto, will one day leave the solar system. However, as in the atomic world, Pluto, and especially Neptune, vitally affect the "magnetism" of the solar system and thus life here on earth billions of miles away.

Ancient and modern explorers of inner and outer space paint an equally complex and fascinating picture of our solar system. From the searing deserts of Mercury to the icy smog of Uranus the images of modern spacecraft challenge the imagination of earthlings to realize the ancient quest for the oneness of life. Like a magnificent symphony, the "music of the spheres" enthralls us, and calls us gently to play our part in the eternal melody.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1987, December 1987/January 1988; copyright © 1987 Theosophical University Press)


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