What is it that makes a sage and seer as contrasted with the great multitude of human beings? A seer becomes such because of the evolutionary perfecting and refining of inner sheaths enshrouding the essential self. When these inner veils, which enwrap and dim the light of the spiritual monad, through education, aspiration, initiatory training, and the vast store of experience gained in many preceding earth lives, are rendered so fine that they become diaphanous to the radiation from the inner god, then the brain-mind is touched almost directly by the radiating light. As this inner radiation originates in a source which is cosmic, the aspirant becomes filled with spiritual wisdom, inwardly self-conscious on high intellectual and spiritual planes, and therefore can truly be called not only a sage because of his wisdom, but a seer because of his cosmic vision. Such are all the truly great spiritual teachers of the human race.
In sharp contrast, there appear quite frequently in religious history individuals of more or less erratic character who may be designated as visionaries. These may be men or women, usually of more or less mystical or religious or philosophical bent, but almost invariably of somewhat fanatic temperament, who promulgate among the unthinking multitudes various sorts of teachings based on the doctrines of some established great religion or widely recognized religious teacher. And these visionaries are very successful in woefully misinterpreting what they usually claim to be either a revelation of the meaning of the teachings they adopt, or a more spiritual revelation than the already established teaching.
These innovators, who are not by any means always impostors because frequently genuinely self-deceived, nearly always claim to speak with religious authority. In rarer cases the claim is made of inspiration from God or some high spiritual authority. They are extremely apt to ignore or contemn natural truths as being comparatively unimportant; or, if such facts are recognized and included, the visionaries commonly teach explanations of them which have no other foundation of fact than their own personal views, or the quasi-mystical and incorrect interpretations of ancient tenets which they emit as dogmas of religious truth.
To understand how honest visionaries are misled into believing that they have entered into cognition of great truths of the universe, it is necessary to know something about where their visions come from and how they misinterpret these. The sincere but misguided visionary actually does "see" something, but what his vision encompasses and his understanding is misled by is not the radiation from the god within, but the astral photographs and records which exist in incomprehensibly great numbers and bewildering confusion, stored up in the astral light. Such visionaries are astral sensitives, receiving impressions from the astral world which permeates the physical world much as electricity both permeates and surrounds an electrified body or as water will fill all the interstices of a sponge.
The astral light is the repository of all things that ever have been, are, or will be. We human beings are as individuals swimming in it; we are perpetually bathed in it; it washes not only through our brains continuously, but through every molecule of our body. Every thought that passes through the human brain, high or low, comes by way of the astral light, even the thought of every god or demigod. For the astral light is a picture gallery through which our human minds wander constantly and which, when sympathetic contact with astral records has been made, transport such record into the brain. Furthermore, each such astral picture of necessity receives the added energic impulse or characteristic embroidery made on it by the brain through which it passes. From the brains which have received it, each picture passes again into the astral light, with its added impress stamped on it. Then some other human brain takes it up, immediately or maybe after a hundred years or more, and that new brain shifts it or gives it a new psychic impulse, and so forth indefinitely.
The astral light in its higher parts records the noblest thoughts and emotions and impulses that the human race has had as individuals; whereas the lower realms, which are quasi-physical, are the depositary of all the vile emanations, pictures, passions, impulses, which degraded human beings have filled it with. Thus, evil-minded men and women will get pictures from the astral light, and by stamping them anew make them a little more crooked. Then they flow forth again and strike some other sensitive mind, which catches them and anew stamps them in accordance with its own characteristics.
The human brain could never think a thought, could never imagine anything, nor could the emotional apparatus be enslaved by its emotional movements, were not all these things already existent and drawn from the astral light -- only to be returned to it. It must not be forgotten, however, that the astral light is likewise the intermediary plane between the physical world and the higher invisible spiritual worlds, and therefore as such is in a sense a channel of communication. Spiritual, lofty, high thoughts and emotions flash through the astral light, spurning what is unlike themselves; but all -- good, bad, or indifferent -- must pass through the astral light before reaching the human brain.
Symbolic ideas are all more or less transformed by their passage through the astral light. In themselves they are creative thoughts, but they become clothed with astral characteristics by their passing through the ranges of the astral light to reach the human brain, and there become still further modified. Thus interpretation is an extremely important factor. A number of people may see the same picture in the astral picture gallery, but may, as individuals, each interpret it with greater or minor differences of mental and emotional outline. It is just as when a number of people look at a landscape: they all are looking at the same scene, but each sees it with his own eyes and with his own mental-emotional apparatus, and hence no two seeings are identical.
Here lies one of the main factors of the unreliability always present in what semi-mystics and quasi-seers describe as visions of truth. They can bring onto the physical plane only such pictures of the astral light as they happen to see and only through the vehicle of their own respective imaginations. Here is just where the great danger lies: the ascription wrongly of spiritual truth to their astral visionings, and hence the ascription to their visions of wrong names, wrong connections, and consequent wrong interpretations. There is, therefore, no genuinely spiritual seership about it. The spiritual seer knows thoroughly the dangers and distortions of the astral light, and sends his piercing gaze through it like a flash into the higher ethereal regions of the spirit, where he can envision truths directly and transmit them in greater or less perfection to the waiting brain. Because of his training, the seer can wander in his consciousness through all of the chambers of the astral picture gallery with perfect safety and with a vision so clear and an understanding so strong that he knows precisely what he is doing and just what it is that he sees or feels, and hence is in no danger whatsoever of experiencing self-deception. The visionary, on the other hand, imagines, often sincerely but erroneously, that what he sees are the facts and workings of the spiritual world, whereas all he actually experiences is a wandering of his erratic and untutored psychomental apparatus through the terribly deceptive picture galleries of the astral light.
Ordinary human beings are unconsciously yet continuously affected by the astral light, which streams through their minds and emotional apparatus in unceasing flow. For instance, a man who tells a deliberate lie does so because he is at the moment servile to a crooked astral current to which his mind has become temporarily sensitive and subject. This does not mean that his moral nature has no existence; the idea is that in such cases the moral nature succumbs to temptation, whereas it should react strongly against evil thought and feeling, and throw these off, and thus rise to higher inner realms. The man of weak, if not necessarily evil, emotional or mental type is simply one who has not strengthened his moral instincts and faculties, and hence is more or less enslaved to such crooked astral currents as may be at any time flowing through his mind. Thus it is immediately seen how extremely needful it is to strengthen the moral sense: to believe in it and to come to love it and to rest upon it as the saving guide in life. For the man or woman who thus lives in the moral instincts can no more be affected by the vile emanations from the astral light than can the great rocks on the seashore be moved by even the winter storms.
The strong but evil mind will likewise see pictures in the cosmic astral picture gallery and, because of its own mental vigor evilly directed, will intensify the pictures mentally seen and received. Thus such a mind throws the whole picture into a current more crooked and evil still; and other weak minds later contacting this astral current then repeat what they see with the added distortions, possibly adding something of their own. Thus the whole evil train of cause and effect contributes to the load of karmic iniquity under which the earth labors.
The astral light in its lower region is simply the subplane next above the physical plane and only slightly more ethereal than the latter. These lower regions, which the ancients of Greece and Rome, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt called the Underworld, interpenetrate physical matter and are the habitat which receives and records all the vilest emanations of the earth, including those of the human race. These lower astral regions in consequence are the habitation of the so-called ghosts of excarnate human beings who, having ascended out of these lower regions after the death of the physical body, have nevertheless left behind them therein their kama-rupas -- the "shades" of the ancients.
Hence, the kama-rupic shades are around us everywhere and all the time. We breathe them in, or repel them, as the case may be; we pass through them or they pass through us with every motion made on either plane. These astral regions are a circumambient ethereal atmosphere, like the air of earth; thus these kama-rupic forms are wandering around in the lower regions of the astral light everywhere, attracted hither and drawn yon, and, except for the elementaries, they are mere rapidly decomposing astral form-bodies which, if left alone and not attracted by human psychic meddling, dissolve into their component astral life-atoms exactly as the physical corpse on earth decomposes into its component physical life-atoms.
On the other hand, the highest regions of the astral light are pure spiritual substance. In fact, the akasic records are the originals for the entire lower realms of the astral world. The lower astral realms are like an astral ocean of swirling currents, possessing no stability, no steadiness; yet all these planes are comprised in the astral light, ranging from the higher akasa down through all intermediate stages of the astral mud and dirt of the effluvia of earth. Hence it is that psychics, sensitives, and other visionaries, who are all more or less subject to the influences and currents emanating from the astral light, are like blind creatures in the astral ocean deeps whither the solar rays penetrate but slightly and illumine only feebly; whereas normal and strong-minded human beings naturally and almost automatically repel these astral emanations and live in the relative sunlight of the intermediate realms, just as the gods have their consciousness placed in the akasa.
It is thus apparent that individuals of whatever grade can see in the astral light and interpret their visions according to the degree in which as individuals they stand in the evolutionary scale. The seer can see into the astral light at will or shut it out at will, and what he sees he can interpret accurately and discriminate between its illusions and truth itself. The visionary, because entirely untrained and more or less ignorant of what is happening, does not understand what he sees nor is he able to interpret it with any degree of accuracy or ability, or to discriminate between verity and illusion. Sincerity, while a highly commendable virtue, is no guarantee of truthful and accurate seership; and the visionaries who are thoroughly honest at heart are ninety-nine times out of one hundred both self-deceived and laboring under the illusions of the astral light. Hence their visions are virtually without value; at worst they provide instances of people who, either self-deceived or not, often deceive others -- an act which becomes deliberate deception when the visionary's intellectual apparatus is sufficiently powerful to enable him to have an intellectual appreciation that his own mentality refuses to accept as verity what his psychic nature perceives.
The higher the psychic or visionary is, in an ethical sense and in mental and spiritual vigor, the steadier he is in character and the more truthful are his visions. Such higher psychics are not deliberate deceivers; unreliable they are, because they have not found the changeless center within, bringing about spiritual stability and the visioning of luminous truth flowing from their inner god. The very fact that such visionaries do sometimes read more or less truly what they see in the astral light is in itself a really dangerous thing, because not only they but others will take this occasional hitting upon the truth as a proof of regular and perfect seership: finding these occasional true visions to be verified, they will use these instances as a support for all other visions that they may have. However earnest they may be, or devoted, or devout, matters nothing to the point. One must have knowledge self-consciously won through many lives of self-directed effort, founded on self-conquest, and this knowledge must be based on nature, that incomprehensibly great inner aggregate of all.
One may well ask: Is there then no means of recognizing who are seers, and who visionaries? Indeed there are several tests. The easiest is the following: Does the innovator teach a system which is universal? That is to say, is the new system one which not only includes all previous religious and philosophical systems, but throws new light upon them, elucidates them, and explains them without contradictions? If so, then the newcomer should be listened to with respect at least, and his proffered system be subjected to a searching examination. If not, then the presumption is that his teachings are naught but personal viewpoints and mental idiosyncrasies wandering widely from the majestic and eternal verities of the universe. All the sincere but unguided visionaries teach ideas and theories evolved out of their own views and feelings or imagination, which usually differ very markedly when brought into juxtaposition and contrasted, the differences often involving complete contradictions. They are not characterized by a logical, clear, consistent, and all-inclusive explanation or exposition of truths of nature, nor of the great and absorbing themes of human and natural origins and their future respective destiny. And last, they contain no adequate explanation of life that satisfies in equal measures both the human mind and heart. This simple test of universality never fails, and should be kept constantly in mind when examining former movements of religious and philosophical thought.
Furthermore, the sincere human heart is a touchstone in itself. Never will it fail, if its silent voice and unerring mandates are recognized. The brain vacillates constantly, and therefore is no sure and certain guide; but the true and unspoiled instincts of the human heart are virtually infallible. By the heart is not meant the emotions, for these last are in continuous agitation.
Another test is that of inner virtue. Now virtue in the Latin sense of virtus -- as contrasted with mere ethics or morality, signifying by the latter words mere custom or conventional procedures -- is a truly distinguishing mark of a genuine teacher. Such virtue is not a mere sentimental thing, but a collection of spiritual, intellectual, and psychical qualities and faculties which include strength of character, indomitable will, penetrating intelligence, spiritual intuition -- the faculties that are the working and exemplification of the divine fire which lives within him and which flows from his heart. Therefore, if the profferer of teachings has these qualities and at the same time teaches the age-old fundamental doctrines found over the globe in all ages, and if one see and feel and sense all these as actualities, then with high probability can such a proponent be recognized as one to whom trust and confidence may be given.
The real seers, the great teachers of mankind, are sure and relatively infallible guides as far as their own awakened spiritual and intellectual faculties go, because they have penetrated into the deepest arcana of spirit and matter in two ways, and thereafter register their relatively infallible knowledge for the benefit of their less evolved fellows. The first way is by examining the indelible records of the astral light, which portray all evolution from the very dawn of time; and the second way is through initiation, by which one comes face to face with one's own inner god, recognizes the duality merging into self-conscious unity or identity, and thereafter becomes a relatively perfect voice of the god within. Divine wisdom and all possible human knowledge are part of the consciousness of the inner divinity, which in turn is an inseparable part of the divine essence of nature herself; and thus knowledge is drawn upon at will at initiation, and in somewhat less degree thereafter.
There are other faculties and interior powers possessed by the normal man that will aid one to discover truth and lead the earnest searcher to a genuine teacher. For instance, hunger for truth that will not be satisfied with anything that is not real will in time lead a man to a genuine teacher. This very hunger may of course lead a man into camp after camp after camp of differing opinions; but the hunger will continuously be there, and finally will lead him out of a half-way camp into a greater camp, closer to the truth, and finally he will reach the fringes of truth, and then, his moral, intellectual, and spiritual faculties being in greater or less degree awakened, he will see the way clearly before his feet and will reach his goal.
Therefore let the hunger for truth live always in your heart. Aspire always to know more, to be more, to think and to feel more grandly. Never be satisfied with what you get. Be permanently satisfied with nothing under the sun -- with nothing less than the sun. Then when you reach the solar splendor, go beyond even it! Let that spiritual hunger for truth and light live in your heart forever, for it is the voice of the inner god seeking its own. Love, together with this divine hunger for truth, will lead you to the vision sublime, to ineffable wisdom, and then to a vision of wisdom beyond these which is unspeakably sublimer still. -- Condensed from The Esoteric Tradition
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2002; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)
A human being is a part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for only the few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature. -- Albert Einstein